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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Scaling tropical giants: Understanding how tree height influences the function of the world tallest tropical rainforest species. Physical Geography PhD studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4000

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Associate Professor Lucy Rowland, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr. Tommaso Jucker, University of Bristol

Dr. Karina Williams, University of Exeter

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:

The immense quantities of carbon stored in tropical forests is strongly influenced by a relatively small number of very large trees.

On average trees with a diameter >70cm contain between 25-45% of the stored carbon, but represent <4% of the number of trees in tropical forests. 2019 saw a ground-breaking discovery of trees in the Amazon exceeding 80m tall, ~30m taller than other trees previously recorded in Amazonia and more similar in size to the dipterocarp trees found in Borneo, the family containing the largest known angiosperm tree in the world, standing at >100m tall. However, the persistence of these tropical giants under future hotter, drier tropical climates remains uncertain.

The impact of the higher resistances associated with getting water to the top of tall trees, which is generated by longer paths from root-to-leaf and greater impacts of gravity, results in taller trees being likely to be disproportionately more vulnerable to climate change, than smaller trees. Currently however, we lack a fundamental understanding of how tall trees adapt their water-transport systems to enable the transport of water over such large distances and whether they can indeed adapt their water transport systems to fully compensate for the increased hydraulic stresses associated with being so tall. Improved understanding will allow us to better predict the climatic tolerance thresholds of large tropical trees.

Project Aims and Methods:

Aim: Address a critical science gap regarding how the water transport systems of tall tropical trees adapt to allow themselves to reach heights in excess of 80 meters.

Specific Objective:

• Evaluate how key plant traits change with height in the world’s largest tropical species
• Evaluate if the changes in structure and function make larger trees more vulnerable to changes in climate

These objectives will be met through extensive field campaigns in Bornean tropical rainforest, with the option to also sites go to sites in the Brazilian Amazon, housing the recently discovered giant Amazonian tropical tree species Dinizia excelsa.

These objectives are however broad and 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, to specify focal research questions, what to measure and how to measure it. As this studentship will compliment an existing NERC-funded research project, it involves joining a team of 15 world-renowned scientists, with specialisms ranging from plant hydraulics, plant anatomy, tree architecture, tropical forest dynamics and vegetation modelling. This provides the candidate with a breath of research specialism to draw upon, when designing their research.

Giant Dipterocarp tree Borneo

Candidate requirements

• A BSC and/or MSc degree in the fields of geography, biology or physical sciences, preferably relating to plant biology

• Be enthusiastic to organise and undertake prolonged research trips to tropical forests

• Have, or demonstrate the capacity to learn, good analytical and coding skills


This project will involve participating in substantial periods of fieldwork in tropical forests, with an experienced research team. Training will include measurement of plant ecological and anatomical characteristics, use of terrestrial LIDAR data to determine tree structural properties, with the potential to include training in state-of-the-art climate models.

Background reading and references

Gorgens et al. 2019. The giant trees of the Amazon basin. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17(7): 373-374.
Liu et al., 2019. Hydraulic traits are coordinated with maximum plant height at the global scale. Science Advances 5(2).
Slik et al. 2013. Large trees drive forest aboveground biomass variation in moist lowland forests across the tropics. Global Ecology and Biogeography 22(12): 1261-1271.

Useful links:

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via website:

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

Each research studentship project advertisement has an ‘Apply Now’ button linking to an application portal. Please note that applications received via other routes including a standard programme application route will not be considered for the studentship funding.


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.

Studentships for international students will only cover fees at the UK home fees rate. However, university tuition fees for international students are higher than the UK home fees rate therefore the difference will need to be funded from a separate source which the student or project supervisor may have to find. Unfortunately, the NERC GW4+ DTP cannot fund this difference from out studentship funding Further guidance on how this will work will be issued in November.

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.


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