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Award details

Ecophysiology of Inga: a key revolutionary genus in tropical forest restoration, NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Geography Ref: 4247

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Lina Mercado, University of Exeter, College of life and Environmental Sciences, Geography

Additional Supervisors

Prof Toby Pennington, University of Exeter, College of life and Environmental Sciences, Geography

Prof Stephen Sitch, University of Exeter, College of life and Environmental Sciences, Geography

Dr William Milliken, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Dr Martin de Kauwe, University of Bristol

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 £15,609 p.a. for 2021/22) 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

Project details

Project Background Recent experimental work from this team has demonstrated the large potential from rainforest species from the genus Inga to be a success for tropical rainforest restoration and agroforestry in poor degraded soils outcompeting invading species and weeds.  As part of a natural warming experiment in montane tropical systems, our team has also found that Inga species are able to cope much better with heat than their montane counterparts. Using 14 of the 26 most dominant Andean species, our results demonstrate that Inga species grow best under elevated temperatures. These species are therefore highly suitable for restoration of the tropical montane forest. Furthermore, since Inga species belong to the legume family, they fix atmospheric nitrogen and have also been used in agroforestry systems providing a natural fertilizer for crops1,2 and are also important intermediate succession tropical rain forest species. Most of the existing data demonstrating their success consist of growth and genetic data, but the plant physiological data that allows understanding of the mechanisms that enable Inga species to outperform other species is not available. Gaining an in depth understanding of how Inga species can thrive in poor degraded soils and hot and dry environments will allow us to predict their functioning under various current and future environmental conditions and thus evaluate their capacity for rain and montane forest restoration and tree-based agricultural systems under different environments and future climates. 

Project Aims and Methods The project will make use of two existing experimental setups in South America (Colombian Andes and Brazilian Amazon, Mato Grosso) with availability of Inga species. The set up in the Andes (plantation of 14 dominant Andean tree species on a thermosequence across 3 elevations) will allow to disentangle plant physiological responses to heat stress and drought using four dominant Andean Inga species.  The set up in the Brazilian Amazon will allow to characterise plant physiological traits across seven Inga species growing on poor/degraded soils as part of a growth trial or small-scale agroforestry systems. The successful candidate will use state of the art photosynthetic equipment to take plant physiological measurements and combine with existing growth data to aid understanding of whole plant processes. There is also the opportunity to perform a modelling application if candidate is interested and time allows.

Candidate requirements We look for a strongly motivated candidate with understanding of plant carbon-climate interactions. The student should be able to work in the field under hot/humid but also challenging conditions. The candidate should be numerically skilled with experience with data analysis and coding in either R, python or similar programming languages. 

Project partners Collaboration with Kew gardens allows access to the Inga experimental facility in Brazil and will contribute will help to ensure that this PhD project achieves maximum wider impacts.

Training In addition to generic skills such as oral presentations, scientific writing and project management, the student will receive specific training on i) Methods needed for plant physiological measurements and designing an experimental protocol for fieldwork, ii) Python or R coding and data (statistical) analysis required for data collected.

Background reading and references

1 Pennington TD & Fernandes, ECM. 1998. The Genus Inga: Utilization. RBG Kew, UK. 

2 Pennington TD 1997.The Genus Inga. RBG Kew, UK.

Useful links For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via ( ,


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 2022 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, please see the entry requirements for details.
  • Two references

Reference information
You will be asked to submit two references as part of the application process.  If you are not able to upload  your reference documents with your application please ensure you provide details of your referees.  If you provide contact details of referees only, 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 1600 hours GMT Friday 10 January 2022. Interviews will be held between 28 February and 4 March 2022.  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:10th January 2022
Value:£15,609 per annum for 2021-2022
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries