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Biological nitrogen fixation in forest soils under elevated CO2: response of a key soil nutrient to global change

Project Description

We are looking for an enthusiastic, well-qualified, and self-motivated candidate to join our team as a PhD student in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) at the University of Birmingham. This exciting PhD studentship is part of the UK Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Large Grants QUINTUS project. QUINTUS is focused on carbon and nutrient dynamics in temperate forests, especially the implications for carbon sequestration in a high carbon dioxide world, and runs from 2019-24. QUINTUS is now operational at the BIFoR Free Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (BIFoR-FACE) experimental forest in Staffordshire (Hart et al., 2019). One of the key questions of the QUINTUS project is to determine the overall carbon capture response of mature temperate deciduous forests to future elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration given that increasing CO2 concentrations can stimulate photosynthesis, thus offering climate change mitigation benefits globally.
One key soil nutrient, which regulates carbon uptake by forests, is nitrogen. Among others, biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) furnishes available nitrogen to forests. BNF is a microbial process in which atmospheric nitrogen gas is converted into plant available forms. Forests under future climates are expected to require more available soil nitrogen to be able to capture atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis. Therefore, it is important to evaluate if BNF rates will be enhanced to support high nitrogen demands of forests.
The successful student will investigate the impact of elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration on BNF at the BIFoR-FACE, UK, as well as in the Eucalyptus FACE forest site in Australia (EucFACE) to determine the relative contribution of BNF in regulating the carbon capture function of forests. EucFACE and BIFoR-FACE represents the only global mature native dry temperate and mature an mesic temperate deciduous forests, thus the results from this research will be applicable to two larger global biome types under future climates. Specifically, this research will involve setting up experimental plots to evaluate the influence of elevated atmospheric CO2, soil moisture, and soil phosphorus availability on BNF rates. In this research innovative biogeochemical and microbial techniques including isotopic and microbial functional assays will be utilized to address the key research questions of this project.
As an integral part of the QUINTUS project, the student will be immersed in two of the world’s largest experimental facilities for global change biology. At BIFoR FACE, the student will be supported by a technical team of 7 members; similar support is available at EucFACE. While testing their own hypotheses within their own doctoral study, the student will have the opportunity to interact with, and contribute to, the wider programme of carbon and nutrient cycle research at these sites.
Training will be provided to the candidate in mastering a diverse range of biogeochemical and microbial techniques throughout the PhD. This field- and laboratory-based training will support the planned research but also much enhance the student’s skillset. In addition to engaging extensively with the wider research of the School and BIFoR at the University of Birmingham and EucFACE in Australia, the successful student will also have opportunities to attend and participate in more generic training on important topics such as time management, communication, scientific writing, and resource management skills.
Interested applicants should hold a very good BSc degree (2:1 at least) or Masters degrees (desirable) in environmental sciences, soil science, ecology, chemistry or other relevant subjects. Students with an experience of research at undergraduate or Masters level are encouraged to apply. An ability to work both independently and as part of a team and willingness to travel to national and international field sites for research is required.
The supervisory team for this studentship includes Dr Sami Ullah and Professor Rob Mackenzie at the University of Birmingham and Dr Yolima Carrillo at Western Sydney University, Australia. This four-year studentship is funded directly by NERC at the University of Birmingham to run alongside the QUINTUS project.

Please note that only UK and EU citizens are eligible to apply for this studentship. For further enquiries contact, S. Ullah (). For the application follow the link. Deadline for applications, May 10th, 2020. To be considered, make sure that you apply through the University of Birmingham online application link. The studentship will start as soon as possible or in September/October 2020.

Funding Notes

fully funded PhD NERC/QUINTUS


Hart, Kris; et al. (2019) Characteristics of Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment of a Northern Temperate Mature Forest. Glob Change Biol. doi:10.1111/gcb.14786
Ellsworth, David S., et al. (2017). "Elevated CO2 does not increase eucalypt forest productivity on a low-phosphorus soil." Nature Climate Change 7: 279.

How good is research at University of Birmingham in Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 25.00

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