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Environmental ecology of human pathogens at the beach

   School of Biological & Environmental Sciences

   Friday, January 06, 2023  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

We are seeking a highly motivated individual to carry out interdisciplinary PhD research in applied environmental pathology, environmental management, and policy development. This project will integrate environmental data to develop a framework that will identify risks of exposure to human pathogens from a visit to the beach and consider the implications of climate change on the survival and persistence of pathogens in the beach environment.

Supervised by: Prof Richard Quilliam, Dr David Oliver (University of Stirling) and Dr Andrew Singer (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology), with Dr Ruth Stidson (Scottish Environment Protection Agency)

Understanding the challenges for clean safe beach environments and their wider ecosystem services is central to the aims of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and is vital for the sustainability and economic viability of designated bathing waters. Epidemiological studies have established that exposure to faecal indicator organisms (FIOs) such as E. coli in bathing waters is significantly linked to a decrease in public health. However, there is overwhelming data from around the world demonstrating that FIOs and human pathogens are able to survive in water and beach sand for considerable periods of time. The source of these pathogens could include direct faecal loading from dogs and birds such as gulls, urban and rural run-off, and sewage discharges, which are becoming more frequent in the UK. Therefore, exposure to beach sand could be a more significant human exposure route for pathogens and disease than the bathing water itself. Crucially however, there is currently no regulatory requirement for the testing of beach sand at designated bathing waters, which is ultimately driven by a lack of empirical studies demonstrating the potential risk of exposure to pathogens during recreational use of beaches. Therefore, the aim of this studentship is to produce an analytical framework of the risks associated with the whole beach environment, including beach sand, at designated bathing waters, and provide the evidence for a step-change in regulatory public health policy to minimise exposure to pathogens in the beach environment.

Key Research Questions:

1. What are the spatial and temporal dynamics of FIOs and human pathogens at the beach, e.g., from sewage discharge, dog fouling, seagulls?

2. Do sand-borne pathogens present a greater exposure risk than water-borne pathogens at designated bathing waters?

3. What are the policy implications for currently un-explored hotspots of FIOs and pathogens, and what regulatory control strategies need to be developed?

This interdisciplinary project will link environmental microbiology and disease ecology with policy development and environmental management. During fieldwork at designated UK bathing waters, the student will isolate FIOs (e.g., E. coli) and microbial human pathogens (e.g., bacteria, protozoans & yeasts) from the sand and water and characterise their spatial and temporal dynamics over the bathing water season. In addition, a set of controlled microcosm experiments will be conducted to further understand the dynamics of environmental isolates of E. coil and human pathogens in sand and seawater and their potential for persistence and dispersal, under a range of environmental and climate change variables. The project will also employ qualitative and participatory approaches to complement the quantitative laboratory experiments and field monitoring.

The entry qualification for this PhD studentship is a first class or upper second class honours degree and/or a relevant postgraduate degree, in biological/environmental sciences. Whilst experience in microbiology would be useful, it is certainly not essential as the student will receive full laboratory training.

Informal enquiries should be directed to Prof. Richard Quilliam:

Please email your CV and covering letter with the contact details (including email addresses) of two referees to Prof Richard Quilliam (). Your covering letter should clearly set out your suitability and motivation for this PhD with reference to your past experience and achievements.

Further information on the project, skills and training opportunities can be found here:

The application deadline is Friday 6th January 2023 at 12:00 noon. By this time applicants must have submitted an application through the IAPETUS DTP online application system (open from 1st November 2022) further details are here: However, serious applicants should contact Prof Richard Quilliam by email well before the deadline to discuss their application. 

Initial shortlisting will take place immediately after the 6th January deadline. Those candidates who are successful in shortlisting will be required to attend an IAPETUS interview on Tuesday 28th February or Wednesday 1st March 2023.

UKRI eligibility rules enable a small proportion of IAPETUS PhD studentships to be awarded to non-UK applicants from overseas and for successful international candidates we will apply to Stirling University to waive overseas fee costs; applicants from overseas should contact the lead supervisor to discuss this.


Funding Notes

This is a competitively funded PhD studentship as part of the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership IAPETUS (View Website). For the successful candidate, the studentship will cover tuition fees and provide a stipend for UK students only (but see NERC funding rules for exceptions regarding EU citizens). The student will benefit from this project being co-supervised as a CASE (Co-operative Awards in Science and Engineering) studentship, with the maintenance grant being supplemented by an additional £1000 per annum.


University of Stirling ‘Environmental Sustainability and Human Health’ Research Group:

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