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Award details

Autonomous technologies and the marine carbon cycle: Impacts of coastal processes on ocean acidification and blue carbon. NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Biosciences. Ref: 4294

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Helen Findlay - Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Additional Supervisors

Dr Ceri Lewis - Biosciences, University of Exeter

Dr Tom Bell - Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Dr Mingxi Yang - Plymouth Marine Laboratory

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 2022/23) 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

PML Research Vessels


Project Background:

Recent environmental and climate initiatives such as ‘habitat restoration’ and ‘Blue Carbon’ aim to increase local biodiversity, support carbon removal from the atmosphere, and alleviate the impacts of stressors such as ocean acidification and deoxygenation. However, the coastal environment is very dynamic, with a multitude of drivers that can impact the chemistry of CO2 and related compounds in seawater (together termed carbonates). It is this carbonate chemistry that ultimately alters the seawater’s ability to take up CO2 from the atmosphere, impacts biological processes such as respiration and photosynthesis, and determines the sensitivity of the system to processes such as ocean acidification. These coastal dynamics are still not well understood or even captured by the long-term, low frequency observations that are currently used for monitoring ocean acidification and other ocean changes. This project will take advantage of a suite of new autonomous vehicles and technologies, together with traditional discrete monitoring, to better characterise the near shore variations in carbonate chemistry, particularly with respect to ocean acidity (pH) and CO2.

Project Aims and Methods:

This project will take advantage of PML’s new fleet of autonomous marine platforms to make exciting novel observations of seawater CO2 and pH alongside air-sea CO2 fluxes with unprecedented spatial and temporal detail. The self-propelled surface (Autonaut) and subsurface (Ecosubs) vehicles are equipped with a range of sensors to measure near surface seawater salinity, temperature, pH and CO2. Air-sea CO2 exchange and pH observations on the L4 moored buoy (part of PML’s Western Channel Observatory) and discrete sampling of dissolved inorganic carbon and total alkalinity will be used to constrain the wider carbonate system. These measurements will facilitate a comprehensive understanding of the drivers of the carbonate system over a large range of scales (e.g. seconds to seasons in time, cms to many kms in space) and environmental conditions (e.g. high winds, waves, different tidal phases).

The student will also be expected to focus on some specific and important habitats, such as seagrass meadows (which are being re-established in Plymouth Sound through the Life ReMEDIES project, kelp forests, and mussel farms. The carbon ‘footprint’ of these habitats will be evaluated by assessing their impact on air-sea CO2 flux and ocean acidification, as well as the biological influence on the coastal marine carbon. The student will synthesise the results to evaluate the implication for coastal carbon uptake, ocean acidification, mitigation, and adaptation.

Candidate requirements:

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a MSc or First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK in subject areas related to chemistry, biology, oceanography, engineering, environmental science or meteorological/atmospheric science. This position will suit someone with field work experience and an interest in biogeochemistry and technology.

Project partners:

Plymouth Marine Laboratory is a world-leading marine research institute with state-of-the-art technology and facilities. Their recently-refurbished laboratories include the SmartSound lab (, which is designed for testing and developing pioneering scientific sensors and platforms. PML also host the coordinating office for the North East Atlantic regional hub of the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network. The University of Exeter is a globally recognised centre of research excellence and one of the UK's top universities with a thriving interdisciplinary Marine Research team spread across it’s two campuses (


The student will join an active postgraduate cohort at PML and will also have access to the University of Exeter excellent postgraduate training programmes, including statistics, scientific writing, and communication skills as well as their early career networks and facilities. The student will also receive project specific training including in carbonate chemistry analysis, CO2 flux calculation and data analysis. They will undergo Sea Survival training, small vessel oceanographic sampling, and use autonomous vehicles and sensors. Skills gained from this PhD will not only be foundational for a future academic post but will also be useful for other professional careers.

Background reading and references:

Ricart et al. 2021. Global Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.15594.
Kitidis et al. 2012. Continental Shelf Research, DOI: 10.1016/j.csr.2012.04.012.
Sims et al. 2021. Biogeosciences Discussions, DOI: 10.5194/bg-2021-166.

Useful links:

Prospective applicants:

For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via Please note that applications received via other routes including a standard programme application route will not be considered for the studentship funding.


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 2022-23
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries