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Award details

Understanding the role of soil legacy effects in successfully restoring native vegetation in Brazil’s tropical savannas, Geography – PhD (Funded) Ref: 4667

About the award


Dr Lucy Rowland, University of Exeter

Prof Rafael Oliveira, State University of Campinas

Dr Fernanda Barros, University of Exeter

Dr Richard Tennant, 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. Consequently, these areas offer an optimal area for restoration using native plants as a nature-based solution to increase the biodiversity value and carbon storage in these areas, directly addressing both the biodiversity and climate crises and providing alternative incomes for local communities. Restoration of native vegetation can either be targeted at conservation or creating to nature positive grazing systems using native plants. Successfully restoring tropical native plants is however dependent on understanding and creating the right soil-plant feedbacks, something which is key to allowing tropical ecosystem to increase soil 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. However, our current capacity to restore native plants into these degraded pastures is poor. This reflects the difficulty of re-establishing native old-growth Cerrado species that are responsible for the very high belowground carbon stores in very specific soil conditions, a problem compounded by the very high species diversity of the biome. Pastures often have compacted, eroded soils, with the nutritional and chemical properties altered by processes such as fertilisation and liming, alongside the legacy effects from growing fast-growth, high yielding exotic grass species which have highly contrasting plant-soil feedbacks to slow growing native plants.


The aim of this PhD is to work with a Shell funded research project Carbon Storage in Pasture through Ecological Restoration (CASPER), focused on understanding the soil legacy effects of exotic pasture grasses on native Cerrado soils and how native slow-growing Cerrado plants can be used to assist the restoration process in areas previously occupied by exotic pasture grasses planted for cattle fodder. T

This PhD will involve setting up pot and field experiments within the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park, in Goiás, Brazil, a key global biodiversity hotspot.

These experiments will be targeted at testing:

1) How the microbial and chemical properties of the soils are altered by fast-growing exotic species versus slow-growing native species.

2) If the soil legacy effects are linked to the functional traits of the plants being grown on them.

3) Whether the soil legacy effects control rates of C question in the soils and the success and competition between native and exotic plant species.

These experiments will involve undertaking chemical, microbial, nutritional and structural analyses of soils, alongside analyses of plant functional traits. However, the broader project will involve this student engaging with the ecological, economic and social contexts of restoration across Brazil.


The project requires a multidisciplinary approach, and the student will receive training on chemical and microbial soil analyses. 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. Furthermore, the studentship will undergo training as to how to interpret genetic analysis of microbial communities in soils.

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 UNICAMP 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 Monday13th 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