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Award details

University of Exeter funding: Facilitating large-scale restoratio

Facilitating large-scale restoration of Brazilian Savannas, Geography – PhD (Funded) Ref: 3961

About the award


Academic Supervisors


The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences is inviting applications for the WWF/Exeter Alumni PhD Studentship in Brazilian Savanna Restoration, to commence in January 2021 or as soon as possible thereafter.  The studentship will cover tuition fees (Home or International) plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,285 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.  The student would be based in Geography and the Global Systems Institute in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.

Location: Geography, Streatham Campus, Exeter

Project Description

In collaboration with WWF, this PhD will work on plugging a science gap to allow the generation of new tools to facilitate large-scale restoration of the Cerrado (savanna) biome in Brazil. The Cerrado is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Brazil, housing numerous different vegetation physiognomies ranging from closed-canopy dry forests, to open grassland. The native vegetation is vital for supplying up to 43% of Brazil’s surface water, yet it remains <20% intact, due to intensive land-use change, primarily for agriculture. Brazil has recognised the need to restore large areas of the Cerrado through committing to restore up to 5 million hectares of the Cerrado by 2030. This would drastically increase ecosystem service provision through improving water security, increasing carbon sequestration, improving the supply of pollinators to both large and small-scale agriculture and securing local livelihoods for some of the poorest communities in Brazil. However, despite Brazil’s targets, no form of general guidance exists on how to restore Cerrado vegetation effectively in a manner that promotes long-term sustainability, particularly given that any vegetation restored now will likely be facing a different climate by the time the ecosystem matures.

In this PhD we will develop techniques through integrating species distribution modelling with a understanding of plant function to develop the means to predict what is the optimal vegetation to restore in different areas of the Cerrado. This will require a renewed focus on understanding what controls the mosaic structure of the Cerrado, where vegetation can vary from closed canopy forest to grassland across small geographic gradients. These issues will be addressed through a focus on three key objectives:

1. Integrating plant species occurrence data across climate and soil gradients within the Cerrado biome
2. Collecting new botanical inventory data in areas which lack key data on species occurrences
3. Understanding the function and environmental limits of key Cerrado plant species and how this may change under future climates.

These objectives will be achieved through extensive field campaigns in forests, savannas and grasslands across the Cerrado. These objectives remain intentionally broad, as the specifics of how they can be addressed will be determined through the candidate co-designing a cutting-edge field research programme with the supervisory team. This plan will specify focal research questions, as well as what to measure in the field. This studentship will complement existing research projects led by all three supervisors and involving joining a large team of world-renowned scientists, with specialisms ranging from restoration and conservation policy, plant functional trait analysis, plant biodiversity and species niche modelling. This provides the candidate with a breath of research specialism to draw upon, when designing their research.

With the support of WWF we envisage the results from this PhD contributing to the creation of a new online application that can help land-owners to identify the most optimal species to plant in order to promote long-term, climate-smart restoration, which can generate key ecosystem services including water and carbon sequestration providing local economic return.

This project has been made possible thanks to the support of WWF and Exeter alumni.

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. The student must also be enthusiastic to organise and undertake prolonged research trips to the Brazilian Cerrado. The student must also have, or demonstrate a strong capacity to learn a good to fluent level of Portuguese and good analytical and coding skills.

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents:

• CV

• Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).

• Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)

• Two references from referees familiar with your academic work. If your referees prefer, they can email the reference direct to quoting the studentship reference number 3961.

• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 31/10/2020.  Interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Streatham Campus the week commencing 9/11/2020.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers)  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor Professor Toby Pennington


Application deadline:31st October 2020
Value:Tuition fees (Home or International) plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,285 for 3.5 years full-time or pro rata for part-time
Duration of award:per year
Contact: STEMM PGR Admissions