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Award details

Understanding the role of native plants in restoring pastures in Brazil’s tropical savannas, Geography – PhD (Funded) Ref: 4666

About the award


Dr Fernanda Barros, University of Exeter

Dr Daniel Vieira, EMBRAPA

Dr Lucy Rowland, University of Exeter

Prof Toby Pennington, University of Exeter


Geography, Streatham Campus, Exeter

The University of Exeter’s Department of Geography is inviting applications for a PhD studentship fully-funded by Shell to commence on 25 September 2023 or as soon as possible thereafter.  For eligible students the studentship will cover international tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £17,668 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study. 

The student would be based in Geography at the Streatham Campus in Exeter, but will also spend significant time in the field working with partners in Brazil.


Pastures account for 21.5% of Brazil’s 8.5 million km2 territory. However, 54% of these are moderately or severely degraded and only being used to support very few animals, thus producing limited economic output, whilst also having very limited biodiversity and carbon storage value. However, across Brazil there is evidence that many farmers are choosing to leave native plants within pasture systems, as evidence suggests that this can increase the productivity of the system, alongside providing shade for animals and alternative incomes from fruit and nut products. However, evidence for how native tropical plants may be increasing productivity in pastures is limited and often only anecdotal.

The capacity of native plants to make pasture systems more ecological and economically productive is likely related to their ability to act as bio-irrigates, extracting water from deep soil layers and transferring it to the surface, to create increased nutritional inputs into the soil, or to increase the carbon inputs into the soil. If native plants provide these valuable ecosystem services and we can prove the benefit of incorporating native biodiversity into pastures, tropical native plants can be used in the place of energy and water intensive fertilisation and irrigation practices, whilst simultaneously allowing farmers to gain from increasing the ecosystem service benefits of greater biodiversity and carbon storage.  

The Cerrado, the Brazilian savanna, is Brazil’s second largest biome and contains the largest proportion of degraded pastures of all Brazilian biomes whilst simultaneously being one of the world’s most important and most threatened biodiversity hotspots. This PhD will aim to understand how the native plants within the Cerrado can be used to create nature-based solutions for local farmers within the Brazilian Cerrado.


The aim of this PhD is to work with a Shell funded research project Carbon Storage in Pasture through Ecological Restoration (CASPER), focusing on creating a tree density and diversity experiment within an experimental farm system owned by EMBRAPA, in Goiás, Brazil. Alongside this the PhD will explore a second experimental site in Poconé, Mato Grosso, where native trees have been left within a pasture systems and actively planted. Within both experiments, the aims will be to test:

1) If native trees can increase the productivity of a pasture and if this is related to tree density.
2) If the native trees alter the soil carbon storage, nutrient and water status of the soils.
3) If different functional types of native trees have different effects on the soils.

These experiments will involve undertaking repeat measurements of plant traits, including growth, biomass and basic functional traits, alongside measures of soil physical and chemical properties.  However, the broader project will involve this student engaging with the ecological, economic and social contexts of both native and pasture restoration across Brazil.


The project requires a multidisciplinary approach, and the student will receive training on undertaking plant and soil chemical analysis, as well as on the experimental design. Day-to-day monitoring and maintenance of the experiment will also be facilitated by an in-country technician. This research will be conducted as part of a wider research program that investigates sustainable routes for maximising carbon sequestration and biodiversity from restoring pastures in Brazil.

This award provides annual funding to cover both home and international tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  International  applicants will have the cost of the student visa, the healthcare surcharge and the travel costs of moving to the UK covered by the project.

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. 

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the required level (Profile B) as per our guidance at

Language tests do not need to be undertaken prior to application, only post-offer. Furthermore, the applicant must speak both Portuguese, as all fieldwork and activities within the partner organisation EMBRAPA must be conducted in Portuguese (both spoken and written).

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. 

• 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)

• Names of two referees familiar with your academic work. You are not required to obtain references yourself. We will request references directly from your referees if you are shortlisted.

• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.

The closing date for applications is midnight on Monday 13th February 2023 GMT.

Interviews will be held virtually / on the University of Exeter Streatham Campus in March 2023.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) +44 (0) 1392 725150 (EU/International callers).

Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.


Application deadline:13th February 2023
Value:For eligible students the studentship will cover international tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £17,668 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Admissions Team