Skip to main content

Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

New Topography for Large Lowland Rivers: Amazon and Mekong Opportunities. Physical Geography PhD studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4026

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Rolf Aalto, University of Exeter.

Additional Supervisors

Barend Van Maanen, University of Exeter.

Andrew Nicholas, University of Exeter.

Michael Singer, University of Cardiff.

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:

Fluvial system sustainability is vital for a half billion riparian residents of global river floodplains and deltas, and it requires knowledge and understanding of the land surface changes through time in response to anthropogenic and climatic forcing. Germane to such understanding is high quality topographic data enabling the quantification of surface morphology and change, which are essential for understanding responses of lowland sedimentary systems to these forcings.

However, most topographic data are of insufficient quality and resolution, creating major challenges for managing lowland river-floodplain complexes in large alluvial rivers. This scarcity of topographic data is especially applicable to low-gradient tropical rivers where 1) accurate topographic survey data are scarce, 2) floodplains have significant vegetation precluding satellite observation of surfaces, and 3) previous global data (eg., SRTM) are technically limited in terms of accuracy and resolution for geomorphic applications. The TanDEM-X high-resolution SAR mission ( offers a way forwards, especially when paired with remote sensing data and machine learning statistical methods.

Our exploratory work with the high-resolution (~12m) TDX product in Amazonia and SE Asia has identified means to remove trees using a combination of tomographic analysis, remote sensing, and machine learning – producing bare earth DEMs for fluvial systems that can be verified for locations where we have field survey and Lidar data from prior and current NERC, NSF, and NASA-funded research projects.

The PhD student would focus on the refinement and application of these novel data and techniques towards quantifying the topography and evolution of project rivers – the lower Mekong River and large portions of the Amazon, major river systems that can be used to calibrate and test these approaches in coordination with ongoing NERC-funded research. Following this verification and refinement against available data, the student would work with the supervisorial team to identify and pursue a range of intriguing scientific questions for apt research locations, providing the PhD candidate flexibility and intellectual independence to realize their own interests and opportunities for transformative research.

The project will appeal to candidates skilled with GIS analysis of topographic datasets, and who are interested in novel spatial analysis of the expressions of and controls on large river morphodynamics – candidates are encouraged to contact the lead supervisor to discuss specific scientific and technical questions for this PhD research.

Exeter is a Russel Group research-intensive university located in a beautiful semi-rural setting, yet just two hours by train from London. We are an international leader in environmental research, Geography is ranked in the top 5 globally (ARWU 2020), and we have close links to the MET Office/Hadley Centre’s climate research into river systems that offers additional opportunities for the prospective student.

Project Aims and Methods:

After refining the analytical methods for study areas with suitable field data, the PhD research would focus on quantifying the floodplain topography and gradients that drive flow, sediment transport, and river evolution for research sites, providing novel scientific insight into the functioning of fluvial systems. To further evaluate observed relationships, the student would work closely with the supervisorial team to design the reminder of their PhD research. For example, potential causal mechanisms identified for study rivers could be tested using models for fluvial morphodynamics (both standard and Exeter research models). Measurements and predictions could be verified against extensive Exeter field datasets available for the study systems and elsewhere, with possibilities for fieldwork. The ultimate aim of this PhD will be to produce generic findings about the functioning and complex evolution of large river systems that are suitable for publication in prominent journals, preparing the student for further career success.

Candidate Requirements:

Strong skills for topographic analysis and remote sensing are required. Modelling and coding skills would also be beneficial, along with a demonstrated passion for river science.


We will provide a high spec workstation plus training for analysing project data. Exeter provides expert technical support for GIS, specialist software such as Delft-FM, HSTAR, and other massively parallel models, and the necessary computer resources to run them. There may be opportunities for the student to assist with NERC-funded survey(s) of river bed and floodplain topography along the Amazon and Mekong Rivers.

Useful Links:

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.

How to Apply:

The application deadline is Friday 8 January 2021 at 2359 GMT. Interviews will take place from 8th to 19th February 2021. For more information about the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership please visit


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