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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

From anther to atmosphere: building a better pollen forecast for human health. Physical Geography PhD Studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4014

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Jon Bennie, University of Exeter, Centre for Geography and Environmental Science

Additional Supervisors

Dr Regan Early, University of Exeter, Centre for Ecology and Conservation 

Lucy Neal, Met Office, Atmospheric Dispersion and Air Quality Group 

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

As our climate and land use changes, so does the relationship between biodiversity and human wellbeing. This PhD will tackle the interface between biology, ecology, meteorology and human health, to understand the consequences of environmental change for both the UK’s countryside and the millions who suffer from hay fever and pollen allergies. This project will reveal the environmental conditions that determine the ecology of allergenic plants in both cities and countryside, and which trigger the onset of pollen allergies. The project will also have an extremely important impact on the lives of the ten million people in the UK whose health is affected by pollen, by improving the UK pollen forecast provided by the Met Office. You will learn field skills through plant surveys and experiments, and advanced analytical skills by developing new biological an atmospheric models of pollen transport. You will also gain experience in the interdisciplinary approach to science that is increasingly important in our rapidly changing world. 

Pollen released from Cock’s foot grass (Dactylis glomerata)

Hay fever and pollen allergies affect 10 million people in the UK.

Project Aims and Methods

This project will improve our ability to forecast pollen concentrations by studying when and where wind-borne pollen is released into the atmosphere by plants and how and where it is dispersed.  It will involve both field studies and mathematical modelling of allergenic plants, to reveal the synergy amongst processes at extremely small-scales (e.g. pollen release from a single flower head), mid-scales (e.g. the density of flowers in cities or countrysides), and extremely large scales (e.g. atmospheric movement of pollen over many kilometres).  Key methods will involve: setting up and running controlled field experiments to measure the daily and seasonal cycles of pollen release in a range of species of plants and their response to weather and climate; carrying out extensive field surveys and developing species distribution models (SDMs) to estimate the changing density of key pollenproducing species within rural and urban landscapes; implementing and validating the Met Office numerical dispersion model (NAME) to predict long-distance transport of pollen grains.  It is expected that you will develop skills in both biological field work and mathematical modelling, but there is scope for you to develop the project to suit your existing skills and areas of interest.

Candidate requirements

The successful candidate should have a degree in a science subject or mathematics, have good numerical skills and an interest in biology and ecology.  Experience in carrying out ecological fieldwork and/or working with mathematical models of physical or biological systems would be an advantage, as well as enthusiasm and a willingness to learn new skills.

CASE partner

The student will be co-supervised by scientists at the Met Office and will have regular supervisory meetings with Met Office staff. They will also spend six months working at the Met Office in Exeter, working closely with scientists in the Atmospheric Dispersion and Air Quality group for the atmospheric dispersion modelling component of the PhD.


The Met office will provide training in atmospheric dispersion modelling, and the supervisory team will provide project-specific training in field skills as required. Exeter University will provide training in transferable skills (e.g. time management, employability, statistics, teaching skills) as part of its graduate training programme. The student will be able to attend regular departmental seminars in the Centre for Geography and Environmental Science and the Centre for Ecology and Conservation.

Background reading and references

McInnes RN et al., (2017) Mapping allergenic pollen vegetation in the UK to study environmental exposure and health risk. Science of the Total Environment 599-600, 483-499.

Van Vliet AJH et al., (2002) The influence of temperature and climate change on the timing of pollen release in the Netherlands. International Journal of Climatology 22 (14) 1757-1767

NAME dispersion model, 


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