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Funding and scholarships for students

Award details

Quantifying and mapping rates of ecologically-driven sediment production on coral reefs, NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Geography Ref: 4249

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Prof Chris Perry, University of Exeter, Geography

Additional Supervisors

Dr Ines Lange, University of Exeter, Geography

Dr Ken Johnson, Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum

Dr Nicola Browne, Molecular and Life Science, Curtin University

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


Carbonate sand dominated beaches along reef-fronted coasts depend on

the continued supply of sediments from nearby coral reefs.

Project details

Project Background

Tropical coral reef ecosystems sustain not only high levels of biodiversity, but also provide numerous ecosystem goods and services that directly benefit society. Some of these goods and services are well documented and can be quantified with increasing reliability (e.g., food resource provisioning, coastal protection). However, far more poorly quantified are rates of carbonate sand production – a process strongly influenced by reef ecology because most reef sediment derives from the fauna and flora living on reefs e.g., as a by-product of parrotfish and urchin feeding, from skeletal organisms such as molluscs and foraminifera, and from carbonate-secreting algae such as Halimeda. Data on the rates at which these producers generate sediment on reefs is generally sparse, and is especially poorly understood in relation to different types of reef settings that differ in their environmental conditions and reef community composition. This is a major knowledge gap because the quantity and grade (size) of sedimentary material produced on reefs impacts upon reef growth and is essential for proximal beach and island building.  Perry_2

Numerous reef species, including parrotfish, play a key role in generating

carbonate sediment on reefs.

Project Aims and Methods

The aim of this project is to parameterise and then apply methodologies for quantifying sediment generation rates, with a specific focus on remote reef-reef islands systems in Western Australia (WA). The project will build on recent approaches that have piloted methods for quantifying sediment generation based on ecological census approaches (Perry et al. 2015, 2017, 2019), and which have also started to explore the influence of disturbance events on ecologically-driven sand production (Perry et al. 2020). The student will firstly establish a set of empirical datasets to quantify rates of biological sand production for a range of sediment producing reef species (parrotfish, sea urchins, Halimeda, foraminifera) across a range of both clear-water and turbid reefs of WA (the intention being that this will include sites in Exmouth Gulf and on Ningaloo Reef). This phase of the project will include testing of AI-based tools to support auto-analysis of reef sediments for quantifying the abundance of common producers groups such as benthic foraminifera. Resultant datasets will then be used to quantify and map reef-level sand generation rates from census data across these sites. Benthic ecology and environmental conditions (light, turbidity, temperature, wave energy) are known to differ markedly between these reef systems and thus so too, we hypothesise, will rates and sources of reef-derived sediment. This project will thus add significantly to our currently limited understanding of, and capacity to quantify, rates of ecologically-driven reef sediment generation – data that is needed to support enhanced coastal and reef island vulnerability modelling.  

Candidate requirements

This project would ideally suit a candidate with a background and interest in either coral reef geomorphology or reef ecology, and with experience of either lab or field-based research at the interface between these two disciplines, and/or good field survey skills. SCUBA experience (or a willingness to learn) are essential.

Project partners 

In addition to the U. Exeter based supervisors (Prof Chris Perry & Dr Ines Lange) the student will be co-supervised by two external academic partners. Dr Ken Johnson (Natural History Museum, London) has worked extensively in the past with supervisor Chris Perry on the ecology and sedimentology of turbid-zone coral reefs in Borneo and Eastern Australia. In addition to his expertise on turbid reefs he will offer support on the AI-based sediment analysis. The student will also work closely with the team led by overseas supervisor Dr Nikki Browne at Curtin University, whose group have undertaken wide ranging work on the ecology of the study systems and will support the proposed fieldwork in WA.


In addition to generic research development training (project development, field work planning, scientific writing), the student will receive project-specific training in reef-based surveying methodologies, species identification, marine sampling and collection procedures, sediment analysis and skeletal breakdown experimental approaches. The student will also receive guidance on approaches to data analysis, data presentation and scientific dissemination, and may have the opportunity to participate in a wider range of cross-group field research activities to extend their research experience and professional network.  

Background reading and references

Perry CT et al. (2020) Bleaching-driven reef community shifts drive pulses of increased reef sediment generation. Royal Society – Open Science7: 192153.

Perry CT et al. (2019) Census estimates of algal and epiphytic carbonate production highlight tropical seagrass meadows as sediment production hotspots. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6, 120 doi: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00120

Perry CT & Alvarez-Filip L (2019) Changing geo-ecological functionality of coral reefs in the Anthropocene. Functional Ecology, 33, 976-988.

Perry CT et al. (2017) Reef habitat type and extent as interacting controls on platform-scale carbonate budgets. Frontiers in Marine Science 4, 185,

Perry CT et al. (2015) Linking reef ecology to island-building: Parrotfish identified as major producers of island-building sediment in the Maldives. Geology 43: 503-506.

Useful links

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via this email address:  Staff page:


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