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Award details

Climate and plastic refugia for ocean species. NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Biosciences Ref: 4296

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Ana Queirós - Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Marine Ecology and Biodiversity

Additional Supervisors

Prof Brendan Godley - Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter

Dr David March - Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter

Dr James Clark - Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Marine Ecology and Biodiversity

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli - Zoological Society of London

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:

  • A 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

Coral Bleavhing

Ghost Fishing

Sperm Whale Family

Project Background:

Ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation are a few in a multitude of pressures linked to increased greenhouse gas emissions, expressing climate change and directly affecting ocean wildlife. They limit the ability of marine organisms to sustain populations locally, driving global scale ocean biodiversity redistribution and loss. These pressures further limit the efficacy of our best tools to preserve these species: Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs). Designing climate-smart MPAs and OECMs have therefore been global ambitions of the conservation sector for more than a decade, but real-life applications remain sparse. Alongside these challenges, coastal and open ocean ecosystems are increasingly affected by other human pressures such as plastic pollution. This ubiquitous pollutant is found from the poles to the equator,and from the coast to the deep sea. Plastics enter the ocean foodweb through direct ingestion by animals, and have been shown to transfer from prey to predator. Despite their pervasive nature, however, climate change and plastic pollution have almost never been considered together in the context of MPA and OECMdesign. This project is one of the first with the primary objective to use state-of-the art modeling and analytical approaches, from the ocean climate change and plastics research fields, to help inform how to protect marine species in the future ocean, though climate-smart and low plastic MPA and OECM network design.

Project Aims and Methods:

The candidate will have the opportunity to build on the supervisory team’s expertise and extensive professional networks to deliver a leading research project with high impact potential, aiming to address four research questions:

1) Where are low plastic and climate resilient areas of the future ocean that may effectively support the 30 x 30 target of the United Nations Convention on Biological Biodiversity (expand MPAs to 30% of the ocean by 2030)?

2) Where are the opportunities to implement climate-smart and low plastic MPAs across the UK nations, supporting the UK’s commitment to the 30 x 30 target, given the distribution of other maritime sectors?

3) Focusing on a series of charismatic species of conservation concern e.g. whales, turtles and sharks, what is the efficacy of this framework?

4) What recommendations can be made for global policy development to support the implementation of climate-smart and low plastic MPA and OECM networks around the world?

Existing methodologies developed by the supervisory team provide a solid foundation for the PhD student to expand on, including: modelling ocean plastic distributions; global ocean climate modelling, species distributional modelling and validation, and other large dataset analyses; and techniques to assess the present and future efficacy of MPAs and OECMs under different climate futures. The student will build on, and advance, these methods towards the delivery of their thesis. They will benefit from Early Career Researcher networks and involvement in globally distributed research programmes and working groups as career development and networking opportunities, developing their expertise in a range of topics covered by the project, providing them with a stellar start to a research career.

The student will specifically benefit from integration in, and support from, leading research programmes in the field, including joining the prestigious NERC/ESRC Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources programme via the MSPACE project, and the EU Horizon 2020 programe FutureMARES. Through both programmes, the student will benefit from working alongside world leading researchers in the fields of ocean climate change and marine conservation. Project partner the Zoological Society of London will provide access to a global network of conservation research, mentoring and training opportunities with Dr Prof. Nathalie Pettorelli, a leading expert in satellite-based ecological applications. Several key, large datasets are available from the first month of the project. The nature of such data ensures that even if one of the objectives of the work should fall through, there are plenty of other interesting aspects to explore.

Pandemic restrictions allowing, travel to meet UK based and international collaborators, and engagement in international initiatives, will be encouraged. This includes contribution to international research and engagement activities, work overseas, and the potential collaboration with colleagues at the University of Boulder Colorado. The flexibility of this project thus protects the student from ongoing pandemic disruption. Flexibility is allowed to enable the student to craft their own research path and to accommodate personal circumstances, within the broad structure of the project.

Candidate requirements:

An MSc in marine ecology, conservation, or quantitative statistics; good understanding of megafauna conservation; and excellent R programming skills; prior experience of GIS; and a multi-lingual background are required.

Project partners:

This project offers the candidate a unique opportunity to join research teams in two world leading marine research institutions, providing fantastic stepping-stones for a career in marine research: Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) and the University of Exeter (UoE). Though global networks of collaborators, from the tropics to the poles, and collaborations with global processes such the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, PML is a leader in ocean climate change research. The Centre for Ecology and Conservation at UoE delivers cutting-edge education and research designed to address the factors that influence biodiversity and complexity in the natural world, focusing on pressing issues in animal ecology including new techniques in monitoring movement in wild animals; and the impacts of climate change. As a project collaborator, the ZSL further offers the student the opportunity to interface with a global conservation NGOs and access complementary techniques.


Beyond direct training on specific plastics modelling and species distribution modelling analyses by the supervisors, the student will be encouraged to develop analysis protocols for large satellite derived datasets to support their model validation work, under the guidance of Dr Pettorelli at ZSL. As a UKRI DTP, GW4+ further offers an excellent doctoral training programme. UoE further provides an excellent international network of collaboration and has a thriving community of PhD students working at sites across the UK and around the world. Focusing on investment and development in training, resources and facilities, the UoE Doctoral College will provide an outstanding quality experience to the student.Useful linksProspective 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