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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Uncovering the long term sensitivity of Southern Ocean phytoplankton to Antarctic climate change, using novel geochemical and ancient DNA proxies. Geology PhD Studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4009

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Sev Kender, University of Exeter, Camborne School of Mines

Additional Supervisors

Prof Ian Barnes, Natural History Museum, London

Prof Melanie Leng, British Geological Survey, Keyworth

Dr Claire Allen, British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge

Prof James Scourse, University of Exeter, Centre for Geography and Environmental Science

Location: Penryn Campus, University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall

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 Antarctic is changing. Delicate ecosystems, from marine mammals and birds, to the phytoplankton at the base of the food web, are under threat from both global warming and human activities such as fishing and whaling. The goal of this project is to better understand how Antarctic phytoplankton will react and adapt to future changes, by examining changes in the past. The early Holocene is characterised by warming comparable to future 21st century projections, and the Holocene/Anthropocene transition experienced severe environmental disturbance from climate change and fishing during the acceleration of industrialisation. However, there are no fossil records from many of the main phytoplankton groups with which to examine their past sensitivity. In this project the student will reconstruct past phytoplankton changes in the Southern Ocean, and the offshore Antarctic Peninsula, with diatom micropalaeontology and sedimentary ancient DNA – a new technique recently developed for non-fossilising groups. The student will also use geochemistry to date the core material, and reconstruct environmental change.

Iceberg offshore Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, December 2018

Iceberg 2

Sediment core collection from the RRS James Clark Ross ship, Antarctica, December 2018

Project Aims and Methods

The aims of this project are to provide the first records of past changes to Antarctic phytoplankton from species that do not produce a fossil record. Sediment core palaeo-proxies for stable isotopes and micropalaeontology will aid in constraining our reconstructions of past marine environments, with which to build a new understanding of the main causes of phytoplankton change both in the past and into the future. The student will have opportunities to be involved in the design of the project, particularly with respect to the existing skills and interest in marine, earth and biological sciences. A range of palaeoproxies are available including but not limited to ancient DNA, isotope geochemistry, and micropalaeontology.

Candidate requirements

The candidate must have a 1st or Upper 2nd class degree in either Earth or Biological Sciences, and the project can be taken in different directions depending on expertise and interest.

Collaborative partner

For this project the Natural History Museum, London, will act as a collaborative partner, providing opportunities for laboratory work experience and additional funding.


The student will have access to a wide range of training made available for at least 3 months of the studentship via the GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership. The student will receive additional specialist training in sedimentary ancient DNA extraction, analysis, and interpretation. The student will have the chance to gain experience in geochemical and micropalaeontological techniques, and will be supported to apply for Antarctic ship-based fieldwork experience if interested. Experience presenting at national and international conferences will be provided.

Background reading and references

Coolen, M.J.L. et al. 2013. Evolution of the plankton paleome in the Black Sea from the Deglacial to Anthropocene. P. Nat. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 8609–8614.

Deppeler, S.L. & Davidson, A.T. 2017. Southern Ocean phytoplankton in a changing climate. Front. Mar. Sci. 4, 40. Pike, J. et al. 2013.

Glacial discharge along the west Antarctic Peninsula during the Holocene. Nat. Geosci. 6, 199–202. 


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.


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