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Assessing the risk to plant health in the UK from future Agrilus invasions

School of Biological & Chemical Sciences

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Dr L Kelly , Prof Richard Nichols No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

A fully funded PhD studentship is available to start in September 2020, jointly supervised by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Dr Laura Kelly) and Queen Mary (Prof. Richard Nichols)
Research Environment
The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 160 PhD students working on projects in the biological, chemical and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world-famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development. Kew has over 50 students actively engaged in research towards their PhD, with access to the world-class scientific collections and use of the laboratory facilities. The student will be based within the Plant Health team, who use evolutionary and genomic approaches to address threats to plant health. The team provides a supportive environment, with regular informal meetings during which the student will have the opportunity to discuss and develop their research ideas.
Training and development
Placement: the project will include a placement within Defra’s Risk and Horizon Scanning Team, during which the student will gain experience of Pest Risk Analysis and develop an understanding of how their research can generate evidence to inform policy making.

Research programme: the experience of research at Kew and QMUL will develop the student’s expertise for creating new methods for phylogenetic and comparative analysis.

Other training: all our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.
Project details
This project will use evolutionary and ecological analysis to identify species which threaten to become invasive pests. We will evaluate this new approach using Agrilus, a genus of more than 3000 species of wood-boring beetles. Several Agrilus species have become major pests of trees and shrubs species with a devastating impact on plant health; yet some of them were previously known as minor inflictions that caused minimal damage to their natural hosts. This history of escalating ecological damage raises the question of whether additional Agrilus species, that are not currently a cause for major concern, also have the capacity to become highly damaging pests, should they expand their range come into contact with naïve hosts. Previous studies have shown that there is phylogenetic signal in host ranges – pests are more likely to attack species that are closely related to their existing hosts. We can therefore use phylogenetic signal to predict Agrilus host range expansions and to assess future risk to plant species that have not yet come into contact with these beetles. This project will use phylogenetic and comparative methods to address the following main research questions:
- Which plant taxa growing within the UK are known Agrilus hosts?
- Which plant taxa growing within the UK are at greatest risk of becoming novel Agrilus hosts in the future?
- Which Agrilus species pose the greatest potential threat to UK plant health?
Eligibility and Applying
Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in an area relevant to the project (e.g. Biological Sciences, Plant Sciences, Zoology, Bioinformatics). A masters degree is desirable, but not essential.

A high degree of motivation, and excellent communication and organisational skills are essential.

Applicants must be eligible for home fee status.

Applicants from outside of the UK are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details.

For informal enquires please contact Dr Laura Kelly ([Email Address Removed]). Formal applications should be submitted online by the stated deadline. Applications should include a completed online application form, CV, personal statement, degree transcript(s) and certificate(s), 2 references and English language certification where available. Please note that applicants are not required to upload a research proposal; simply state the project title and supervisor details in this section of the application. The link for the online application form can be found on our website:

Funding Notes

This studentship is open to UK and EU applicants and is funded by Defra (the UK Government Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). It will cover tuition fees, and provide an annual tax-free maintenance allowance for three years at the Research Council rate (£17,285 in 2020/21).

The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences is committed to promoting diversity in science; we have been awarded an Athena Swan Silver Award. We positively welcome applications from underrepresented groups.


Gilbert & Parker, The Evolutionary Ecology of Plant Disease: A Phylogenetic Perspective. doi: 10.1146/annurev-phyto-102313-045959.

Robles-Fernández & Lira-Noriega, Combining Phylogenetic and Occurrence Information for Risk Assessment of Pest and Pathogen Interactions with Host Plants.
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