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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Were tropical peatlands responsible for the atmospheric CH4 concentration increase during the last deglaciation? Geography PhD studentship. (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 3994

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Angela Gallego-Sala


Additional Supervisors

David Naafs - University of Bristol

Richard Tennant - University of Exeter

John Love - University of Exeter

Gusti Anshari - Tanjungpura University

Jennifer Williamson - UKCEH


Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,  the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
  • Up to £750 for travel and accomodation for compulsory cohort events.

Project details

Project Background:

Atmospheric methane (CH4) concentrations have varied widely and abruptly in response to natural climate cycles, e.g. the last deglaciation1; but the causes of this variations have remained controversial2. We know tropical wetlands are likely to play an important part of the methane budget at present time3,4. Because of the anoxic conditions found within their sediments, wetlands are the main natural emitter of methane and more than half of the annual methane emitted to the atmosphere at present is from tropical wetlands3. They are also the main driver for interannual variability of methane and have been shown to be very sensitive to climatic change4. But the role of tropical peatlands in driving atmospheric methane concentration during the last deglaciation is still heavily debated5,6,7. This project will aim to use the peatland record to investigate the importance of tropical peatlands in methane production during the last deglaciation.

Project Aims and Methods:

The successful candidate will join a multi-disciplinary team of scientists to investigate methane production in tropical peatlands using the following approaches:

1) Collection of tropical peat core spanning the last deglaciation period (~16-20 Ka BP) until present times in a tropical setting. This may involve field work in Indonesia.

2) Quantification of changes in methane production and consumption during the deglaciation period using biomarkers and compound specific isotopes in these peat samples8.

3) Quantification of wetland hydrological cycles through time (which has a major impact on the methane cycle) using testate amoeba9 in these peat samples.

4) DNA sequencing of the paleo-microbiome in order to determine the presence of different methanogenic archaea groups through time10.

The student will be encouraged to be involved in the final design of the project, including bringing in their own ideas in order to influence the direction of the research according to their interests.

Taking a core sample in a tropical peatland

Collaborative partner:

CEH will offer a unique opportunity for training on modern-day methane emissions, as part of an on-going project with Natural Resources Wales on Lowland Raised Bogs. This will add another aspect to the project that will allow the student to develop a calibration of the paleo-proxies using modern-day data.


This project will provide training in cutting-edge laboratory methods including biomarkers, testate amoeba and DNA sequencing. The student will also be provided with extensive training in field skills with the opportunity to conduct field work in Indonesia (not mandatory). The student will be encouraged to participate in NERC GW4+ DTP training courses to develop both technical and personal skills essential for a successful scientific career. Funding is also provided for the student to present their research at a major international conference. The student will be supported to apply for travel grants to support further travel opportunities.

Background reading and references:

1.Brook et al. Science 273, 1087–1091 (1996).

2.Schaefer et al. Science 313, 1109–1112 (2006).

3.Bloom et al. Science 327, 322–325 (2010).

4.Ciais et al. in Stocker eds. 465–570 (2013).

5.Reyes & Cooke PNAS 108 4748-4753 (2011).

6.Xu et al. Sci. Rep. 6, 30431 (2016).

7.Brook et al. Global Biogeochem. Cycles 14, 559 (2000).

8.Zheng et al. Geol. 48, 82-86 (2020)

9.Swindles et al. Ecol. Indicators 91 636-644 (2018)

10.Hales et al. App & Env Microbiol 62 668-675 (1996).


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.  For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2021 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

Useful links:

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor (Prof. Gallego-Sala) via email:

Prospective applicants: For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via


Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project


How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

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

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is Friday 8 January 2021 2359 GMT .  Interviews will be held between 8th and 19th February 2021.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:8th January 2021
Value:£15,285 per annum for 2020-21
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries