CDT SuMMeR: PhD opportunities with the University of Exeter

PhD projects and studentships

Applications for cohort 1 of the CDT SuMMeR are now closed, for this year's PhD studentships commencing from 1 October 2022.
Exeter University is a host institution for the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (CDT SuMMeR). To view the full range of opportunities available through the CDT visit the Study with CDT SuMMeR page.
If you wish to informally discuss any of our projects further, please contact the lead supervisor.
Details on how to apply and eligibility are listed on the Study with CDT SuMMeR page. If you require more information on the admissions process please contact

Investigating the history of Sussex kelp habitats and their impact on local communities

PhD Project Reference: CDTS105
Lead Supervisor:
Prof Callum Roberts
2nd Academic Supervisor: Dr Chris Yesson
Associate Partner: Sussex IFCA 


A kelp forest of
warm-water <i>Laminaria ochroleuca</i> on the coast of Plymouth, UK, at low tide (Image
Credit: Albert Pessarrodona)<br></p>
CDTS105: Project information

Project background
Historical perspectives are vital if we are to truly appreciate the scale of past changes in our coastal seas. Increasing numbers of restoration projects are making use of historical sources to inform restoration goals and to connect communities to their local environmental history and heritage. Kelp beds are a critical element of a marine ecosystem, providing vital ecosystem services such as habitat for many commercially important species, and protection for coastal residents. The coast of West Sussex used to be home to an extensive and biodiverse kelp bed habitat spanning 30 km of coastline. This habitat was lost at the end of the 20th century, but is now being restored by the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project. However, our understanding of the spatial extent of this habitat, the timing and drivers of its demise, is very limited.

This project will use a multi-disciplinary approach centred on the emerging field of marine historical ecology to examine the historical extent, uses and impacts of this habitat. It will examine a variety of datasets from council records, to newspaper headlines, remote sensing to fishing activity and interview community elders to piece together a picture of this habitat, how it was once used, and to assess the causes of its decline. This information will of importance to informing the goals and expectations of the ongoing restoration project, and to ensure wide community support. The successful candidate will exploit a range of sources and approaches from the natural sciences, social sciences and history, providing them with an excellent opportunity to learn and employ a wide variety of valuable research skills.

Aims and objectives
This project will examine the history and perceptions of the Sussex kelp beds over the last century, with the aim to inform restoration goals and community understanding of the variety of benefits that restored kelp environments can bring. The specific questions we seek to answer are:
  • What was the historical extent of kelp habitat and seaweed drift? How persistent was this habitat prior to its loss?
  • Which drivers were correlated with past declines and increases in kelp habitat extent?
  • In what ways did local communities and marine resource users perceive and value the kelp habitat? How did the presence and subsequent loss of the kelp habitat affect these communities, socially and economically?

To answer these questions, the candidate will be trained in the use of:
i) historical documentary evidence from government and local authority records, fisheries and popular media reports;
ii) Remote sensing and aerial photographic imagery, and;
iii) semi-structured interviews.

Using the above range of sources and supported by the combined interdisciplinary expertise of the academic and affiliated supervisors, this PhD project will provide a holistic view of the dynamics and social-ecological significance of an important marine habitat over the last century. This historical perspective will provide valuable evidence on the barriers and motivators to restoration and insights on what to expect when kelp habitats are restored in the region.

Although based at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus, the student will spend significant time at ZSL and with Associate Partners to understand the current state of knowledge and activities that are underway to support restoration activities. The project will integrate into the multi-institutional Sussex Kelp Restoration Project, connecting the student with a diverse range of stakeholders including fishers, divers, business owners, local authorities and other members of the Sussex coastal community. The student will thus build a strong interdisciplinary science and policy network, be exposed to the existing scientific and management challenges related to the Sussex Kelp Restoration project, generate an interdisciplinary skillset including mastery of remote sensing, archival and interview techniques, and further develop their research questions to meet academic, scientific and partner needs.

Project structure
This project has been co-developed by several associate partners from universities, charities and government bodies who are an integral part of the Sussex Kelp Restoration project and who will remain actively and closely involved in the PhD project. Given the extensive network already in place, the first 18 months of the project will be dedicated to evidence gathering, interviews, and collation of historical documentation. During this time, the student will be based at ZSL with the secondary supervisor for approximately six months to focus upon and develop their remote sensing skills. The remaining PhD time will be dedicated to assessment and analysis of the discovered historical records and interview transcripts with at least three publishable PhD chapters anticipated.

CDTS107: Past, present and future benefits from marine biogenic shellfish reef habitats

PhD Project Reference: CDTS107
Lead Supervisor: Ruth Thurstan
2nd Academic Supervisor: Stefanie Broszeit
Associate Partner: Natural England

CDTS107: Project information

Project background:
Biogenic shellfish reefs are complex seafloor habitats created by the presence of species such as oysters and mussels. They promote high biodiversity and provide important benefits to humans including improved water quality, food provision and cultural services such as recreational diving and fishing. These habitats were once highly abundant around the United Kingdom but were subsequently severely depleted. Because of the multiple benefits they provide to humans and marine biodiversity, biogenic reefs are of high conservation and restoration interest. However, we lack an understanding of the scale of past loss, the benefits they once provided and what benefits they could provide in the future if they were to be restored. We also need to understand who will benefit from restoration activities and what trade-offs will have to be made to keep these habitats healthy while coastal habitats continue to be heavily used.

To fill these knowledge gaps, this PhD will investigate the past, present and future of ecosystem service provision in biogenic shellfish reefs at a site in the South West of England, the Fal Estuary. A case study approach will allow for in-depth analysis and practical application. It will also develop methodological approaches and generate lessons for wider research and management.

This PhD will work closely with stakeholders and adopt natural and social scientific approaches to understand the implications of past loss and future regeneration of these habitats, and how the benefits and trade-offs of restoration action will be distributed across society. Supervised by experts based at the University of Exeter, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Natural England, the student will develop a deep knowledge of the challenges facing marine managers while generating an interdisciplinary understanding of approaches to tackle these challenges head-on.
Recent governmental commitments in the 25 Year Environment Plan & Fisheries Act to an ecosystem approach to management, and commitment to a Net Gain approach to biodiversity, means this project has great potential to inform policy and management for biogenic reefs. The successful student will gain the ability to delve into ecological, historical and social science approaches to gain interdisciplinary research skills that they can build on in their future careers in academia, government or industry.

Aims and objectives
This PhD will use primary and secondary data sourced from ecological and environmental repositories, historical archives, interviews and participatory approaches. It aims to answer three overarching questions:

1. How has the distribution, form and function of biogenic shellfish reef habitats changed over time and how can this knowledge be used to inform recovery targets?
2. How have the potential and realised ecosystem services, and the societal distribution of their benefits, changed over time?
3. Under a business as usual and a recovery/restoration scenario, what are the predicted trade-offs across ecosystem services, and how equitable and acceptable are these trade-offs to beneficiaries?

These results will inform discussion around the setting of ecological recovery targets, who benefits from local ecosystem services and how, and the role that historical data can play in setting recovery and restoration targets. By working directly with local stakeholders and local authorities, this project will inform policy and management goals and guide the implementation of future restoration strategies.

This project will demonstrate the value of combining social and ecological sciences to inform sustainable management of marine resources. The successful candidate will be based at the University of Exeter with significant time spent each year at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Natural England to develop their transdisciplinary skills and maximise collaborative networks.

With supervisors based at University of Exeter and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the student will have access to a wide variety of interdisciplinary training opportunities, including the development of archival interrogation techniques, ecological and beneficiary mapping skills, semi-structured and participative interview techniques, and Bayesian Belief Network analysis. Further skill development and networking opportunities at the University of Exeter will be made available through research groups such as ‘Exeter Marine’. At Plymouth Marine Laboratory, students will be exposed to several marine science disciplines in the ‘Sea and Society’ group and throughout the institute.

The student will be encouraged to attend and present at international conferences, and to produce non-academic outputs, such as policy briefs, for stakeholder dissemination. An internship at Natural England during the early stages of the PhD will provide the student with an understanding of the policy environment and policy needs over the short and longer-term.

Project Structure
This project is impact-oriented and was co-developed with Natural England (NE) as a CASE partner. Research Question 1 will be closely developed with Natural England, with fieldwork and data analysis underway in year 1. The first year will also be dedicated to the design of the research protocol for Research Questions 2&3, ready for data collection to commence in the second year. At the beginning of year 3 the student will focus on developing their understanding of Bayesian Belief Networks and the production of scenarios for presentation to relevant stakeholders.

The deep understanding and novel insights generated for this fast-moving research field are anticipated to lead to internationally-recognised research papers, of high interdisciplinary interest and with policy impact.

CDTS112: Using an interdisciplinary approach to elucidate pollution impacts and antimicrobial resistant pathogen dynamics across terrestrial, estuarine and marine environments

PhD Project Reference: CDTS112
Lead Supervisor: Prof William Gaze
2nd Academic Supervisor: Prof Davey Jones
Associate Partner: North Devon Biosphere Foundation

Image of water pollution courtesy of Shutterstock
CDTS112: Project information

Project Description
The impact of environmental change on pathogen dynamics and AMR evolution from catchment to coast

Coastal environments are particularly vulnerable to chemical and microbial pollution that impact ecosystem services and human health. Antimicrobial resistant (AMR) bacterial infections are an emerging societal threat, with approximately 5 million deaths per year globally associated with bacterial resistance to antimicrobial drugs commonly known as antibiotics. It is accepted that the environment plays an important role in the evolution and transmission of AMR, however the dynamics of drug resistant bacteria within river catchments and receiving coastal waters are poorly understood. This is due to the complexity of river catchments, variable weather and climate dependent pollution sources and the fate of particles and pathogens at the freshwater, estuarine, marine interface where human exposure in bathing waters and uptake by farmed shellfish occurs.

This student will investigate pathogen and AMR dynamics in a model catchment and designated coastal bathing water situated within the North Devon Biosphere. This catchment is unique in that it has rich sensor networks utilising Siemens, South West Water and Environment Agency technologies, allowing close to real time data to be acquired on hydrological and chemical variables. This will allow unparalleled opportunities to understand catchment and coastal pathogen and AMR dynamics at a resolution not previously possible. The student will work with a scientific team at Exeter and Bangor recently awarded a 10M Euro grant to study coastal pathogens and climate change. Culture based methods, quantitative PCR and metagenomic approaches will be used to generate field data that will inform understanding of catchment scale process associated with increased transmission risk. In vitro, experimental approaches will be used to understand impacts of future climate change scenarios on AMR evolution and pathogen survival that will also inform models. This interdisciplinary project will provide training in catchment scale and coastal processes, molecular microbial ecology, evolution and elements of modelling supported by a diverse supervisory group with expertise across relevant subject areas. The student will also work with partners at the North Devon Biosphere project and the Environment Agency, giving experience of working across academic, NGO and government sectors.

CDTS119: Characterising the dynamics around offshore wind farms by combining machine learning and oceanographic techniques

PhD Project Reference: CDTS119
Lead Supervisor: Ian Ashton
2nd Academic Supervisor: Ajit Pillai
Associate Partner: 4 Earth Intelligence 


</p><div><div>Offshore wind farm at sunset. Image courtesy of Getty Images.</div></div><p></p>
CDTS119: Project information

Project Description
This project will use data science techniques and satellite data sets to better understand how offshore wind farms can impact the ocean. In particular, effects on the waves, water circulation and the movement of sediment can change the environment where wind farms are built and the oceans around them.

Until recently, data have mainly been gathered using boats and fixed buoys. However, scientists increasingly use satellites and autonomous vehicles to collect offshore data. These technologies are providing new data sets and this project will aim to use data science techniques, including machine-learning, to combine new, exciting measurements with established techniques leveraging their respective strengths. The aim of this data fusion approach is to provide oceanographic data with resolution, accuracy and ease of access not previously obtained. These data sets will allow us to measure changes to the natural environment and identify the most suitable sites for offshore wind farms while protecting our oceans.

The rapid growth in offshore wind combined with the importance of commercial and environmental viability of proposed projects mean that this project can make a valuable and timely difference to spatial planning and the sustainable management of marine resources.

The project would suit someone with abilities or interest in any of the following fields, data science, the marine environment, offshore wind and remote sensing. The student will be based in the University of Exeter Penryn campus in Cornwall, South West UK. The project will include placements with 4 Earth Intelligence, also in Cornwall, where they will learn how the commercial data market operates for offshore projects alongside the commercial processes for purchasing and processing environmental satellite data. During the final year of research a further placement with 4EI will be used to analyse how the systems and architectures developed for physical oceanographic parameters can be integrated with commercial systems.

CDTS124: Factors limiting marine connectivity at a species’ range edge – the case of the pink sea fan, Eunicella verrucose

PhD Project Reference: CDTS124
Lead Supervisor: Dr Jamie Stevens
2nd Academic Supervisor: Dr Peter Robins
Associate Partner: Natural England

<p>The seabed of Lyme Bay covered with a forest of pink sea fans in 2017</p>
CDTS124: Project information

In the seas of southwest Britain and Ireland the pink sea fan (Eunicella verrucosa), an IUCN red list octocoral species, is at the northern edge of its natural range; sea fans add complexity to reef systems and provide sites of attachment for the eggs of a variety of species, including sharks, rays, cuttlefish and nudibranchs. Recruitment of new individuals into range-edge populations is often infrequent and sporadic; some peripheral populations also exhibit distinctive patterns of genetic variation. Whether patterns of genetic structure are driven by connectivity through ocean currents or by oceanographic barriers to connectivity, or by selection acting at the range edge, e.g. temperature, is key to our understanding of population dynamics of pink sea fan. The PhD will investigate this exciting topic with practical application to marine conservation through the placement and spacing of marine protected areas (MPAs) designed to support and restore this species.

This project will use SNP genotyping and oceanographic modelling to explore connectivity in the pink sea fan, around southwest Britain and Ireland. The project will focus on assessing diversity and connectivity between sea fan populations along a geographical cline stretching from Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire (a range edge population) with sea fan populations further south: Lundy Island in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Critical to this proposal, we have permission from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to sample recently settled sea fan recruits within the Skomer Marine Reserve. This site is of particular interest: it is the only major area for sea fans in Wales and is characterised by the presence of a relatively small number of old, large fans, with few new recruits. In addition, at Exeter we hold an extensive collection of sea fan samples collected from across the species’ range including samples from across Devon, Cornwall and Ireland, all potential donor regions for the Skomer population. The oceanography of the region will be mapped using new state-of-the-art models that include features key to larval connectivity, e.g. the Ushant and Celtic Sea fronts, as well as wind-driven surface currents – from which larval dispersal models that include biological traits will characterise population connectivity networks.

The project requires a multidisciplinary approach and the student will receive training in the use molecular genetic methods (genotyping using SNP profiling), oceanographic modelling and aquarium experiments to explore the factors (genetic and oceanographic and biological) limiting connectivity of sea fans; the research will feed into marine policy, in collaboration with the Marine Evidence team at Natural England and NRW.

The student will be registered at Exeter and will be based in the Department of Biosciences, Streatham. All genetic research and associated spatial genetic analysis will be based at Exeter, supervised by Dr Jamie Stevens. The student will also benefit from regular placements at Bangor University and training in oceanographic modelling under the supervision of Dr Peter Robins in the School of Ocean Sciences. A collaboration with researchers at the Horniman Aquarium will facilitate exploration of key biological factors linked to connectivity, e.g. timing of spawning and larval settlement cues. There will also be opportunities for fieldwork at Skomer and a placement with the Marine Evidence Unit (Exeter) of Natural England to explore how data feed into policy and legislation.

In summary, the project offers a unique, trans-disciplinary research training in a highly sought-after field, with opportunities to undertake practical research that will feed directly into UK marine policy.