PhD opportunities

Research degree opportunities in Biological and Environmental Sciences

We have a strong vibrant community of PhD research students and we would be pleased to discuss options with anyone who is interested in joining us either for a PhD or MPhil degree.

PhD places for research projects supported by a funded studentship are advertised throughout the year (but especially during the autumn and winter months), usually using FindAPhD.

Our PhD students are funded by many different sources, including Research Councils, charities, NGOs and industry. Many of our PhD students are supported by the NERC IAPETUS Doctoral Training Partnership; you can find out more about this on the DTP’s website.

We are also happy to support students from the UK and abroad who have their own funding sources for a PhD, or who wish to develop proposals to apply for their own scholarships etc. In the list below you will find examples of topics for which our staff are especially keen to host research students. However, this list does not describe all the research activities in Biological and Environmental Sciences: you can find out more on our research pages and by browsing the webpages of our staff. Staff members would be pleased to receive enquires from prospective research students.

You can find out more general information about research degrees at Stirling University and about how to apply.

Topic title & Supervisor

Topic Description

The impact of ageing on host-parasite interactions in insects

Dr Matt Tinsley

As animals age, the physiological integrity of many body functions deteriorate through senescence. Ageing humans become more susceptible to infectious disease, whilst their immune system becomes less responsive and poorly regulated. The same is true in insects. In recent years my lab group members have studied immune senescent questions in flies (Drosophila melanogaster), ladybirds and bumblebees; we have particularly focused on how the efficacy of the cellular immune response declines with age. I would be keen to host PhD students studying topics ranging from ecology (the epidemiological consequences of immune senescence in lab and wild insects), through evolutionary biology (trade-offs associated with early- and late-life immune investment), to cell biology (mechanisms and processes underpinning phagocytosis decline).

Understanding insect-pathogen interactions to deliver sustainable insect pest control for agriculture

Dr Matt Tinsley

In the future the world will need more food to feed a growing population, yet huge quantities of the food we grow are lost to insect crop pests. The main tools that we have to control insects are chemical pesticides, yet these frequently suffer the twin drawbacks of causing environmental damage and triggering resistance evolution in the target pests. The natural pathogens of insects offer sustainable alternatives to conventional pest control and the development of these new ‘biopesticide’ products has increased greatly in recent years. Our research work includes a range of research projects to investigate how insect fungal pathogens can be best used in crop protection. This involves understanding how fungal biopesticide efficacy can be improved, whilst also mitigating the potential risk of resistance evolving to these new control agents. I would be interested to discuss research options with potential PhD students who are excited by this research area. PhD topics could range from the details of insect responses to fungal pathogen infection (behavioural, life-history and immune responses), studies of genetic variation for pathogen resistance phenotypes, through to fieldwork investigating the efficacy of fungal biopesticides in agricultural settings. We currently work with colleagues in Brazil, Kenya and the UK, which offers the opportunity for collaboration and international research. You can find out more about our research here: https://enhancingdiversity.wixsite.com/endorse.

Building better forecasts for environmentally-transmitted infectious disease

Dr Stuart Auld

 

 

Predicting the timing, size and severity of infectious disease epidemics is enormously challenging. One of the main reasons for this is because many epidemics are caused by parasites or pathogens that are completely novel, or are in some way invasive, infecting new hosts in new environments. It is common that we are lacking in important information required to build effective forecasting models. Novel techniques for species distribution modelling (SDM) can provide a solution to this problem. SDM estimates a species’ distribution based on environmental descriptor variables and then predicts shifts in that distribution in response to environmental factors. I would be keen to recruit and train a PhD student to adapt and apply this SDM approach to a database of marine, freshwater and terrestrial environmentally-transmitted diseases. The project could provide a credible framework for predicting the unknown. Moreover, it could also highlight particularly sensitive model parameters and thus direct the focus of empirical data gathering in the event of novel disease outbreaks. This student would both develop statistical and epidemiological modelling skills. They would also be trained in communicating their science to both an academic and wider general audience.

Dissecting the drivers of evolutionary change in Chernobyl

Dr Stuart Auld

 

 

Mutations are the ultimate source of all biological variation. Radiation supplies mutations, and therefore can supply genetic variation. However, radiation can also select against particular genetic variants and thus remove variation from the gene pool. Studying the role of mutation and selection in shaping the evolution and diversity of contemporary populations is enormously challenging, but the Chernobyl area, with its highly heterogeneous radiation dose levels, provides opportunity to overcome these challenges. My lab uses the freshwater crustacean, Daphnia pulex, to understand evolutionary change among Chernobyl populations. I am keen to recruit a student to test key questions concerning the genetic, phenotypic and ecological implications of variation in ionising radiation across Chernobyl populations over both space and time. This student would be trained in evolutionary ecology and environmental science laboratory skills, statistical modelling, and would conduct field work in the Ukraine. They would also be trained in communicating their science to both an academic and wider general audience.

Impact of environmental contaminants on cell function

Dr Jenson Lim

 

Our lab is interested in the area of environmental cell biology which is the study of how xenobiotics influence cellular function. In our lab we use a plethora of model organisms from insects (e.g. waxmoth, Galleria mellonella), annelids (e.g. lugworms), microorganisms (e.g. yeasts, bacteria & protists) and cultured mammalian cells. We are currently interested in how environmental contaminants such as ionising radiation, air pollutants and emerging contaminants such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) affect cell mechanisms and we have the following projects on offer:

  • Examining the impact of air pollution on Galleria mellonella
  • Evaluating the use of Galleria mellonella to study low-dose radiation studies
  • Understanding leaf litter fungal decomposition and their ecological impact under ionising radiation conditions
  • Proving bioremediation of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

If you are interested in these or other related topics, please do get in touch with me and we can further discuss your ideas.

Environmental protection from ionising radiation and other contaminants

Professor David Copplestone

Understanding the exposure and effects of ionising radiation and other environmental contaminants on wildlife and humans is crucial to allowing their permitted use and release. Our research focuses on understanding exposure pathways, the fate of contaminants and their impacts and makes use of the range of analytical equipment and facilities that we have at Stirling. Of particular note, is access to an irradiation facility where we can conduct long-term experiments to determine the effects of ionising radiation on invertebrate species with the ability to assess endpoints ranging from the molecular to survival rates. Field studies may be conducted in a range of contaminated sites such as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. We are also interested in how flooding may remobilise contaminants leading to potential exposures. I would welcome PhD students interested in any area of research in the fate and impact of environmental contaminants.

Pollination, bees and plant evolution

Dr Mario Vallejo-Marín

My lab studies pollination biology, plant evolution, bee behaviour, adaptation, and speciation using a combination of ecological, behavioural and genomic tools.

We are currently investigating plant-pollinator interactions and buzz pollination - where bees use vibrations to extract pollen from flowers. We are also interested in understanding the early stages of plant speciation, particularly mediated by hybridisation and genome duplication. Our general approach is to combine lab and fieldwork experiments to study the amazing evolutionary relationships between plants, pollinators and their ecological context. We incorporate a variety of tools from field experiments to ecological biomechanics to genomics.  If you are interested in these or related topics, please get in touch with me, and I will be happy to detail further the individual projects available in my lab.

The nature of selection for sexually dimorphic characters

Dr Luc Bussiere

Some of the most fascinating and diverse adaptations include elaborate sexual dimorphisms. Sexual selection theory suggests that these differences evolved because of contrasting selection across the sexes, but there are relatively few empirical tests of this hypothesis, because selection on divergent characters across sexes is often difficult to interpret in a meaningful and comparable way. Dance flies (Diptera: Empididae: Empidinae) exhibit famously diverse mating systems, ranging from species with “conventional” sex roles to species in which females do most of the aggregating and competing for the attention of choosy males. Some of this diversity probably derives from interspecific variation in the value of “nuptial gifts” passed from males to females during mating. In some species, competition for nuptial gifts is so strong that females have developed elaborate sexual ornaments on legs, wings, or abdomens that enhance their attractiveness. There is also substantial diversity among dance flies in the morphology and degree of sexual difference in compound eyes: some species have no divergence across the sexes in eye morphology, while in others males have enlarged eye facets over the dorsal surface of the eye. In still other species, females also have enlarged (but ventrally situated) facets. Eye facets are ideal for studying character divergence, because of the relatively simple physiological relationship between facet size and function, which is unlikely to change dramatically across sexes or species. I am eager to supervise PhD students who can advance this work in one of several ways, including for example morphometry and formal selection analysis, molecular surveys of eye pigment expression levels, and/or neurophysiological assessments of the functional consequence of eye facet diversity.

Modelling evolution, ecology, and social-ecological processes

Dr Brad Duthie

I am interested in hosting PhD students across a broad range of topics relating to theory and modelling in evolution, ecology, and conservation. My research uses mathematical and computer simulation models to investigate how biological systems evolve and are sustained. Ongoing research projects of mine include the evolution of animal behaviour (e.g., mating systems and inbreeding avoidance), coexistence of species, and interactions between humans and wildlife. Much of this work revolves around writing computer code to develop and simulate individual-based (i.e., 'agent-based') models. For PhD projects, no previous modelling experience is required or assumed, so if these or similar topics interest you, then please get in touch with me.

Biodiversity conservation

Professor Kirsty Park

My research interests are broadly concerned with the effects of anthropogenic change on biodiversity and testing mitigation strategies designed to reduce negative impacts. In recent years my group have been examining the following sorts of questions:

  • Where do we prioritise restoration efforts to maximise biodiversity conservation (see www.wrenproject.com for more information)
  • Do agri-environment schemes work and how can we make them more effective?
  • How can we make plantation forests work for timber and wildlife?

I would be happy to discuss potential PhDs with students wanting to work in these, and related, areas.

Invasive species: spread, adaptation and impacts

Dr Daniel Chapman

I am keen to work with PhD students on any aspect of invasion science, to better understand the biology and impacts of invasive non-native species. Understanding the drivers of invasion and the biological processes that allow non-native species to become successful invaders are major scientific challenges. I am interested to discuss studentship opportunities using field, experimental, data science and/or modelling approaches to address broad topics including, but not restricted to:

  • What drives large-scale patterns of invasion? Current and past research investigates interactions between human activities, climate and species traits to understand why some places are heavily invaded while others are less impacted.
  • How do range-expanding species adapt to novel environments? We aim to better understand rapid evolutionary change in invading populations, focusing on life history, dispersal and stress tolerance.

What can the spread of invasive species teach us about biodiversity responses to climate change? Many native species are undergoing range shifts tracking climate change. Do they spread through human-modified landscapes similarly or differently to invasive species?

Freshwater ecology and ecosystem restoration

Professor Nigel Willby

Meeting energy, food and water needs whilst protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services is one of the biggest challenges facing society in a rapidly changing world. My research and that of the PhD students who have worked with me focuses on how freshwater organisms respond to environmental change, whether from external stressors or planned restoration, and the use of these responses for biomonitoring. We cover a range of trophic levels from plants and invertebrates to fish, mammals and birds and the interrelationships between them, and work across lakes, rivers and ponds and riparian environments. I would be happy to discuss projects with prospective students around the following themes:

  • Long term consequences of upland farm rewilding for biodiversity and ecosystem services
  • Regional effects of habitat engineering by beavers on biodiversity in heavily-modified landscapes
  • Tree planting and herbivore management as contrasting strategies for restoration of upland watercourses

Analysis of national scale datasets to constrain responses of biota to different pressures on UK stream systems.

Freshwater science, ecology and rewilding/restoration

Dr Alan Law

Freshwaters are ubiquitous ecosystems that are highly connected. They therefore act as indicators of the wider ecosystem health and are highly response to local changes. My research focusses on quantifying changes and how we can improve and make freshwaters more resilient.

I would be interested in hosting PhD students on a range of topics within freshwater ecology, that can combine field and lab studies. Examples of available projects could include:

  • Patterns and processes in freshwater biodiversity conservation
  • Understanding aquatic and terrestrial linkages (sinks, sources and subsidies)
  • Exploring the role of wetlands in greenhouse gas emissions and carbon cycling
  • Discovering the potential of rewilding/species introductions to enhance landscape connectivity and resilience.
  • Using novel technologies (e.g. drones) to enhance our understanding of freshwaters.

Atlantic salmon ecology

Dr Colin Bull

I am looking at recruiting a PhD student to focus on Atlantic salmon marine survival during a critical 3 month period. It aims to quantify the importance of candidate mortality factors in controlling the variation in Atlantic salmon marine survival recorded over the past four decades. The project will build upon a conceptual framework of the salmon ecosystem, integrating datasets derived from satellite, ocean monitoring networks and biological surveys to construct and test explanatory models (utilising Structural Equation Modelling and Individual-Based Modelling methods) of key processes in target coastal ecosystems. This important project will address a key knowledge gap in understanding of the key pressures and mortality processes facing salmon during their coastal migration, and will play a vital role in linking patterns of production in freshwater to survival in the marine phases of the life cycle. The outputs from this project will provide much-needed support for future salmon management and conservation actions.

Coastal ecology, behavioural ecology, gamification

Dr Andre Gilburn

I could supervise PhD projects on a range of topics. These include projects on coastal ecology, behavioural ecology, conservation, wildlife-human conflicts and citizen science and gamification. Some example areas of study include the development of apps to make citizen science projects more engaging and accessible. The use of location-based games to study human foraging behaviour and sex differences in foraging for static and mobile prey. How gamification could increase engagement with and understanding of the environment. Using alarm call bird scarers to reduce conflict between farmers and wintering geese whilst minimising stress to the geese. The role of beached wrack as an ecosystem service provider.

Environmental sustainability and human health

https://eshh-stirling.com

Professor Richard Quilliam

Potential research students joining my group would be interested in one or more of the following areas: environmental health, agroecology & rural development, environmental pathogen ecology, water quality, sustainable disease & waste management. Examples of available projects could include (but are not limited to):

  • Issues of drinking water quality and access, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa
  • The interaction of human pathogens with plants (ready-to-eat plants and forage crops for livestock)
  • Survival dynamics of E. coli in soil and water and the cycling of enteric diseases at the agriculture–environment interface
  • The colonisation of plastics by human pathogens and the potential for their widespread transport through freshwater and marine environments (see - https://plasticvectors.stir.ac.uk/)
  • Human health risks at the beach and in bathing waters – implications for tourism and socio-economic development

Please contact me to discuss PhD research in any other area of Environmental Sustainability and Human Health not listed here.

Environment and human health

Dr David Oliver

The use of catchment resources is in ever-increasing demand from a range of stakeholders, often with competing or conflicting agendas. Effective management of multiple pressures on land and water environments is therefore critical to safeguard environmental quality and public health while also delivering opportunities for recreation, food production, energy generation and other key ecosystem services that catchments provide. I would be happy to discuss PhD opportunities with prospective students on any aspect of land and water management for human health protection. Examples of project topics include:

  • Fate and transfer dynamics of agricultural diffuse pollutants (e.g. nutrients, faecal indicators, pathogens, emerging contaminants) across multiple scales;
  • Managing competing demands on soil and water resources in catchments to benefit public health;
  • Evidence-based policy for safer, healthier and more resilient bathing water environments;
  • Health and wellbeing benefits of green and blue space, in particular the blue-health benefits of freshwater environments;
  • Linking models and decision support systems to visualise catchment risks to water quality.

Socio-environmental interactions of the energy landscape

Dr Jen Dickie

My research interests are broadly focused on the socio-environmental interactions of the energy landscape. I would be keen to supervise students on a range of topics that take interdisciplinary approaches to better our understanding and support a just transition to a low carbon future. The geographical focus of my research is currently South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the UK. I am particularly interested in supervising projects on the following topics:

  • socio-technical assemblages of renewable and sub-surface energy systems
  • Issues of energy access, poverty and justice
  • the role of biogas in supporting sustainable livelihoods
  • the water-energy-food-health nexus
  • exploring energy futures through innovative and participatory research methods.

Heritage conservation in an environmentally change(d) future

Professor Ian Simpson

Built and landscape heritage together with the major social and economic benefits this brings to local communities is under unprecedented pressures from environmental change. Our group is addressing these challenges through fundamental research into heritage in its earth-sciences context, co-produced evidence-based solutions to conserve heritage in an environmentally change(d) future and delivering research impact through our close collaboration with local communities and conservation agencies.

Our current conceptual and methodological research directions are focussed on new understanding of seismically extreme events and /or medium-term climate change impacts on heritage assets.  PhD programmes are possible in the following areas:

  • Heritage building stone performance in a climate change(d) future. Modelling climate change(d) futures in the Stirling state-of-the-art controlled environment facility, identifying new weathering in building stone.
  • Mitigating future precipitation change impacts in archaeological landscapes. Creating and testing new technosol materials preventing wetness damage.
  • Future climate change impacts on site micro-stratigraphy records. Working in Greenland and in the Stirling control environmental facility, assessing micro-stratigraphic loss in Inuit heritage sites in a changing climate.
  • Long-term water management infrastructure resiliencies in semi-arid environments. Working in South Asia assessing millennial-scale water management infrastructure adaptation as junctures between success and failure of historical local communities.
  • Mitigating heritage disaster in seismically active areas. Assessing seismic performance of ritually placed foundations in heritage monuments, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.

Coastal dynamics and storm-induced hazards in a changing climate

Dr Carlos Loureiro

Coastal areas are amongst the most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, particularly due to rising sea levels and changes in coastal storminess. This has wide-reaching implications for the livelihoods and safety of coastal populations, which will continue to increase in the foreseeable future. Understanding and predicting the dynamics of coastal landforms, particularly the processes and hazards driven by extreme storm events, is therefore paramount to enhance the environmental and socio-economic resilience of coastal zones. My research explores these topics across a wide range of coastal systems from Scotland to Southern Africa, and I would be keen to host PhD students interested in themes such as:

  • Resilience of coastal systems to extreme events, from extratropical to tropical storms
  • Exploratory modelling of present and future coastal barrier morphodynamics
  • Hazards, vulnerability and risks in developed coasts under a changing climate
  • Analysis and modelling of nature-based solutions for coastal protection.

Quaternary Science; geomorphology; marine geology; geo-materials; geoconservation 

Dr Tom Bradwell

I am keen to host PhD students conducting research on a range of topics within glacial geology, seabed geomorphology, Holocene and Pleistocene geochronology, sea level change, and studies exploring the physical properties of rocks and sediments. Doctoral students would receive training in specialist techniques and quantitative approaches, as well as data collection best-practice in the field, on- and/or offshore. My links with government-sector science and industry would ensure a balance between academic and commercial drivers throughout the PhD programme, enhancing employability and strengthening research skills. Specific topics of particular interest right now include:

  • Providing new insights on marine deglaciation using high-resolution core-scanning techniques
  • Understanding weathering-related stone decay in cultural heritage structures
  • Exploring the rapid retreat of Iceland’s mountain glaciers over the last 30 years
  • Mapping onshore evidence of former high sea levels (Meltwater Pulse 1A) in northern Scotland
  • Reconstructing the Pleistocene sea-level history of the North Sea Basin

Analysing global patterns of in-lake dynamics

Dr Ian Jones

Surface meteorology drives the temperature change and vertical mixing in lakes, which, in turn, affect all other aspects of lake ecosystems. The variation in climate across the world and the mediating effect lake area and depth have on both the meteorological drivers and the lake response to those drivers means different lakes can behave in very different ways. The recent proliferation of high frequency in situ lake monitoring means that there is now an unprecedented amount of lake data available across the world. Analysis of these data allows geographical and morphological influences on lake behaviour to be understood, so that appropriate management strategies can be developed to combat wide-scale threats to lake ecosystems, such as climate change and pollution. This project will provide an opportunity to combine global-scale data analysis and numerical modelling of lake physics to analyse patterns of lake dynamics across the world.

Monitoring intertidal areas using satellites and drones

Dr Armando Marino

 

In this novel research, we want to improve the management of intertidal areas by using satellite images and drone data. Mud flats and salt marshes are ecologically and economically valuable ecosystems. They support a rich biodiversity including a varied invertebrate community and important wading birds and wildfowl. They also play an important role in carbon sequestration and mitigate the impact of storms on coastal areas.

We want to demonstrate that radar satellites and drones could be the key to a robust evidence-based coastal management strategy. We will extract geomorphological information about mudflats (e.g. surface elevation) and saltmarsh edges and evaluate changes in the last decades. The work will include large field and drone activities. 

We will focus on two tidal areas in Scotland: a) the Solway Firth, one of the biggest saltmarshes in the UK; b) Skinflats, a smaller marsh subject to an ongoing restoration project.

Monitoring flooding and assessing malaria risk using satellite data

Dr Armando Marino

Floods are wide-spread events that affect ecosystems, proving hazards to lives and goods.  To mitigate the consequences of floods and reduce risks, we need accurate synoptic information, which can be provided by satellites. This project aims at developing new methodologies to detect flooding under vegetation (grass or forests) since this is still unsolved. We will focus on test sites in UK and Guyana, where for the latter we will also produce malaria risk maps (Guyana has one of the highest impacts of malaria in South America).

We will use ESA Sentinel-1 and -2 freely available data to monitor two test sites: Stirling and the North Rupununi. We will perform training and validation of satellite data using water gages, drones and a ground-based radar. We will produce flood maps (for UK) and malaria risk maps (for Guyana).

This project is connected with the UKSA funded project DETECT. 

Investigating the role of fire in soil biotic processes and carbon storage at tropical grassland-forest transitions

Dr Jens-Arne Subke

Fire is an important process that shapes the structure, biodiversity and function of many ecosystems on Earth. In fire-prone systems, residues of incompletely burned biomass can form an important store of carbon (C) in soils and sediments, with inherently slow turnover times of its highly aromatic components (Bird et al., 2015). There is also a significant redistribution of nutrients associated with aerial deposition of ash, and lateral transport of fire residues by wind and water that impacts on ecosystem productivity. Projected changes in fire frequency and biomass production will likely impact on the size of this globally important soil C pool, but we so far lack an understanding of processes of stabilisation or decomposition of pyrogenic carbon (PyC) in soils to even predict the direction of this change. Key gaps in our understanding include:

  • What are contributions of PyC to long-term soil carbon storage?
  • What are roles of soil animals and soil microbial groups in the processing of fire-derived carbon in soils?
  • What is the spatial distribution of mineral nutrients associated with wind and air-borne movement of fire residues?
  • What is the role of fire return frequency on ecosystem productivity, nutrient availability and soil carbon storage?

The PhD studentship would address some fundamental knowledge gaps relating to the impact of grassland fires on ecosystem function. A strong focus of the proposed research programme will be on field-based observations, supported by lab-based process studies and advanced analytical techniques to elucidate the way in which pyrogenic carbon relates to carbon storage and other ecosystem functions.

Iron (bio)geochemistry in environmental science and planetary exploration

Dr Christian Schroeder

I work on the intersection of environmental science and planetary exploration. My overarching research interest is in the (bio)geochemical iron cycle and its interaction with the carbon and other nutrient element cycles.

Environmental science: I am interested in supervising PhD projects related to the ‘Rusty Carbon Sink’. Such projects may investigate, for example, the role of iron in:

  • Carbon sequestration
  • Source to sea carbon transfer
  • Carbon transport
  • The bioavailability of iron

Planetary exploration: I am generally interested in the mineralogy and geochemistry of rocky and icy planetary bodies in our solar system. PhD projects in the following fields would be particularly interesting:

  • The role of iron minerals in the preservation of organic matter with respect to the upcoming ESA ExoMars rover mission.
  • The role of iron in the evolution of organic molecules in icy bodies such as comets or the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

What meteorites found on Mars can teach us about the Red Planet.