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Exploiting animal personality to reduce chronic stress in captive fish populations. BBSRC SWBio DTP PhD studentship 2023 Entry. PhD in Biosciences

   Department of Biosciences

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  Dr A Wilson, Prof Christos Ioannou  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The BBSRC-funded South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) involves a partnership of world-renown universities, research institutes and industry across the South West and Wales.

This partnership represents a distinctive group of bioscientists, with established international, national and regional networks, and widely recognised research excellence.

We aim to provide students with outstanding interdisciplinary research training within the following themes, underpinned by transformative technologies:

These are growth areas of the biosciences and for which there will be considerable future demand.

The award:

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP). 

Programme Overview

You will be recruited to a broad, interdisciplinary project, supported by a multidisciplinary supervisory team, with many cross-institutional projects available. There are also opportunities to:

• apply your research in an industrial setting (DTP CASE studentships).

• undertake research jointly with our core and associate partners (Standard DTP studentships with an   


• work with other national/international researchers.

• undertake fieldwork.

Our structured training programme will ensure you are well equipped as a bioscience researcher, supporting careers into academia, industry and beyond. 

Project Description

Over recent years the study of personality, defined as the presence of consistent behavioural differences between individuals in a population, has become an important theme in animal behaviour. In this project, the student will build on recently demonstrated links between behaviour and stress physiology to determine how we can harness knowledge of animal personality to improve the welfare of animals, and specifically fish, in captivity.

Stress responses are the behavioural and physiological pathways by which animals maintain fitness when challenged by adverse environments. Over evolutionary time natural selection has shaped stress responses to cope with the inevitable risks and dangers of life in the wild. However, many animals now live in captivity under conditions very different from those in which their stress responses evolved. This can lead to problems. For example, chronic activation of endocrine stress pathways is common and can negatively impact health. Although we understand mechanistically why problems can sometimes occur, we are not yet able to predict when they actually will. However, recent studies show that individuals vary in susceptibility to chronic stress in ways that can be predicted by behavioural profile or ‘personality’.

This is intuitive - behaviour is often the first line of defence when challenged by adverse environments and so personality traits (e.g. boldness) can be understood as part of an integrated stress response. Additionally, studies show that genetic factors underpin many of the among-individual (i.e. personality) differences. This raises the prospect that selective breeding for particular personality types could be used to improve stress resistance in captive populations.

The goal of this project will be to develop and validate behavioural biomarkers of stress resistance for use in captive fishes. To achieve this, the student will investigate the integration of behaviour (personality), physiology, and welfare indicators (e.g. growth, longevity) at individual and genetic levels across a range of species maintained in captivity as models for scientific research (e.g., guppies, zebrafish). Investigating multiple models is important because, while physiological stress pathways are conserved across species, the structure of personality variation is labile across environmental conditions and evolutionary time. So we don’t yet know, for example, if the same personality types will always be more resistant to chronic stress or whether this will vary across housing conditions, populations and species. The project will combine theory and analytical methods from livestock genetics with physiology, welfare science, and assays of animal personality developed largely by behavioural ecologists.

Part Time and Flexible Study Options

Part time study options maybe available please discuss with the supervisor. For further information please see - https://www.swbio.ac.uk/project-adjustments-part-time-study-and-flexible-working/

Due to complexities and restrictions associated with visas for part-time studies, we are currently unable to accept part-time international students to the programme.

Entry Requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Masters degree or have significant relevant non-academic experience.

In addition, due to the strong mathematical component of the taught course in the first year and the quantitative emphasis in our projects, quantitative/mathematical experience is needed. This can be demonstrated through one or more of the following:

  • Undertaking units as part of your degree that have a significant quantitative/mathematical component*
  • Maths or Physics A-level (grade B and above)

*Significant mathematical component examples include; maths, statistics, bioinformatics.

Applicants must ensure they highlight their quantitative/mathematical background within their application and to upload any supporting evidence.

To support accessibility to PhD training opportunities, these studentships are only available to applicants that have not previously obtained or about to obtain a PhD degree (or equivalent).

How to apply

The closing date for applications is midnight on Monday, 5 December 2022. Interviews will be held between 1st and 15th February 2023.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email [Email Address Removed].

Project-specific queries should be directed to the primary supervisor.

For further information and to submit an application please visit - https://www.exeter.ac.uk/study/funding/award/?id=4574

Selection Process:

Please note, the studentship selection process will take place in two stages:

For further information please go to - https://www.swbio.ac.uk/programme/selection-process/

Funding Notes

A fully-funded four year SWBio DTP studentship will cover
• a stipend* (at the standard Research Council UK rate; currently £17.668 per annum for 2022-23)
• research and training costs
• tuition fees (at the standard Research Councils UK rate)
• additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month internship
*An enhanced stipend is available for students with a recognised veterinary degree qualification (£24,789 per annum for 2022-2023). There may also be enhanced stipends associated with projects that have a CASE partner (CASE projects are highlighted as *CASE in the project lists).
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