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Award details

Phytoplankton as indicators of environmental change. NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Biosciences. Ref: 4298

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Karen Tait - Marine Ecology and Biodiversity, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Additional Supervisors

Dr Adam Monier - Living Systems Institute, Exeter University

Dr Paul Somerfield - Marine Ecology and Biodiversity, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Mrs Claire Widdicombe - Marine Ecology and Biodiversity, 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

Project Background:

Phytoplankton are fundamental to all marine ecosystems and those that depend on them. They sustain oceanic biogeochemical cycles and help to regulate our climate, yet are under enormous threat and change from warming, ocean acidification, eutrophication, extreme weather events and pollution. Understanding the factors influencing the seasonal structure of phytoplankton communities and how this is influenced by environmental change is the key challenge of this PhD.  

Project Aims and Methods:

Within this PhD, you will determine the seasonal signature of key taxa, identify drivers of variability, and  predict the impact of a changing climate on phytoplankton communities. This will be achieved using both morphological (i.e. microscope) and molecular datasets as a means of taxonomic identification, and you will have the opportunity to learn both techniques. You will make use of extensive morphological (30+ year) and molecular (10 year) data collected at the Western Channel Observatory (WCO - site L4, and you will be responsible for continued collection of high-quality molecular data sets. DNA-based approaches have the potential to provide unprecedented detail and insight into the ecological connections between taxa and their environment at a fraction of the sampling cost of traditional methods such as time-consuming microscopy, but there is an urgent need for proof-of-concept studies that provide a thorough comparison of data derived from traditional methods.

Within this PhD, you will have a unique opportunity to explore detailed, matching morphological and molecular data sets to identify gaps and synergies, with the aim of developing best practises. There is increasing interest in the use of eDNA as a tool for marine management through the development of biological Essential Ocean Indicators (EOVs) as markers for ocean health. Your data will be mined to determine which key measurements can be used to assess the health of the WCO. You will also have the opportunity to learn and employ novel single cell sorting techniques to isolate individual species for DNA sequencing in order to create detailed DNA reference libraries for local species.

Candidate requirements:

We seek an enthusiastic, self-motivated candidate, with a broad interest in marine ecology. You will have at least a 2.1 BSc in biology, chemistry, oceanography or a suitable branch of environmental sciences. The ideal candidate will either have expertise and/or knowledge of molecular biology and bioinformatics, or a strong desire to learn these skills. Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Exeter University value a diverse research environment, and we welcome and encourage student applications from under-represented groups.

Project partners:

You will have the opportunity to work within two contrasting world-class research environments: PML and Exeter University’s Living Systems Institute. The majority of your time will be spent at PML where you will be immersed in a unique, independent research centre with a focus on cutting-edge interdisciplinary marine research. You will have access to PML’s recently refurbished molecular biology and microscope facilities and research vessels. At Exeter University, you will have access to the research facilities at the Living Systems Institute where you will learn state-of-the art sequencing, bioinformatics and bioimaging techniques. This project benefits from being closely aligned to the NERC’s National Capability Western Channel Observatory programme.


The supervisory team are committed to providing you with a comprehensive training experience, imparting you with the skills required for a future in scientific research. At PML you will receive specialist training in molecular biology techniques (DNA extraction, PCR) and, if desired, traditional microscope-based identification of phytoplankton. You will also receive a thorough grounding in the application of multivariate statistics. There are ample opportunities to collect your own samples on board PML’s research vessels if desired. At the Living Systems Institute (Exeter University), you will gain expertise in single cell sorting, nanopore sequencing and bioinformatics. You will also be given training in a wide range of professional skills (writing, communication) and will have the opportunity to present your work at national and international conferences.

Background reading and references:

  • Wideman et al. (2020) Unexplored mitochondrial genome diversity revealed by targeted single-cell genomics of heterotrophic flagellated protists. Nature Microbiology, doi 10.1038/s41564-019-0605-4
  • Parry et al (2020) A metabarcoding comparison of taxonomic richness and composition between the water column and the benthic boundary layer. ICES Journal of Marine Science (2020), doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsaa228
  • Abad et al (2017) 18S V9 metabarcoding correctly depicts plankton estuarine community drivers. Marine Ecology Progress Series,584, pp.31-43.
  • Tait et al (2015) Dynamic responses of the benthic bacterial community at the Western English Channel observatory site L4 are driven by deposition of fresh phytodetritus. Progress in Oceanography10.1016/j.pocean.2015.04.020
  • Widdicombe et al (2010) Long-term phytoplankton community dynamics in the western English Channel. J. Plankton Res. 32:643-655.

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