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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Are microplastics important vectors for dissemination and evolution of antimicrobial resistance in aquatic systems? Medical Studies PhD studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4005

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Aimee Murray, University of Exeter, Medical School

Additional Supervisors

Professor Penelope Lindeque, Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Dr Matthew Cole, Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Professor Angus Buckling, University of Exeter.

Location: Pentryn Campus, University of Exeter, Falmouth, 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:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) 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.
  • Up to £750 for travel and accomodation for compulsory cohort events.

Project details

Project Background:

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the greatest threats to modern society. The environment is increasingly recognised as playing an important role in the evolution, emergence and dissemination of AMR. Plastics are one of the most prevalent types of pollutant in the aquatic environment and one of the most persistent.

Microplastics have been shown to harbour diverse microbial communities that are distinct from the surrounding water and other, natural debris. They have also been shown to harbour greater numbers of AMR bacteria and act as platforms for horizontal gene transfer of AMR, compared to the surrounding aquatic environment.

Microplastics are therefore not only ubiquitous and ever-increasing anthropogenic substrates, they may act as global vectors that support and disseminate AMR between microbial communities, trophic levels and environments.

Project Aims and Methods

This interdisciplinary PhD will determine if microplastics support the growth and enrichment of AMR in the aquatic environment. How microplastics interact with other environmental pollutants, such as antibiotics and other antimicrobials will be considered, as well as the ecological implications of the combined effects of microplastics and antimicrobials on AMR in the gut microbiota of aquatic organisms. This will be through a combination of microbiological, molecular and spectroscopy analyses of experimental microcosms and field samples. We encourage students to be actively involved in the design and direction of the project as it progresses.

Microplastics on beach

Candidate requirements

Ideally, candidates would have microbiological and some molecular lab experience.
CASE partner.

The CASE Partner:

Cornwall Wildlife Trust, will contribute an additional £20,000 (£5,000 per year) to the student’s RTSG and provide a placement between 3 – 12 months at their headquarters, near Truro, Cornwall.

Collaborative partner

Cornwall Council will provide support to the development of the project where possible, with resources from a variety of council departments: Together for Families, Public Health and the Estates Team.


The successful candidate will be trained in microbiology, molecular microbiology, bioinformatics, statistical analyses, marine organism handling, field work and FTIR; in addition to academic writing, presentation and stakeholder engagement.

Background reading and references:

1. Cole M, Lindeque P, Halsband C, Galloway TS. 2011. Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62:2588-2597.

2. Zhang Y, Lu J, Wu J, Wang J, Luo Y. 2020. Potential risks of microplastics combined with superbugs: Enrichment of antibiotic resistant bacteria on the surface of microplastics in mariculture system. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety 187:109852.

Useful links

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via

Prospective applicants:

For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via

Each research studentship project advertisement has an ‘Apply Now’ button linking to an application portal. 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 2021 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.

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however 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 Friday 8 January 2021 2359 GMT .  Interviews will be held between 8th and 19th February 2021.  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:8th January 2021
Value:£15,285 per annum for 2020-21
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries