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  Hydro Nation Scholars Programme 2024 - Developing novel environmental phytoremediation strategies to remove antimicrobial resistant human pathogens from polluted freshwater systems

   Hydro Nation Scholars Programme

  , Prof N Willby, Dr D Oliver  Wednesday, January 10, 2024  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

We are seeking a highly motivated individual to carry out PhD research in the fields of environmental science, water quality and environmental microbiology. This prestigious Hydronation Scholarship, funded by the Scottish Government, will provide a platform to build an interdisciplinary research career in the integrated fields of ecosystem science and environmental management. The successful candidate will be based at the University of Stirling, supervised by Professor Richard Quilliam, and will become fully embedded within the “Environmental Pathogen Ecology research group” in the Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences.

Human pathogens carrying genes for antimicrobial resistance (AMR) pose a significant challenge to sustainable environmental management and water security. Pollution of waterbodies with pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, and intestinal Enterococci, can have wide ranging impacts on downstream ecosystem services, e.g., drinking water, recreational activities, and fisheries, yet the full consequences of such contaminants on ecosystem functioning, and on both human health, and one-health, are far from certain.

Aquatic phytoremediation is a nature-based phytotechnology that uses aquatic plants (macrophytes) for the natural removal of pollutants from surface waters. Using macrophytes for phytoremediation is a non-invasive approach that can strategically target a range of pollutants at points of delivery into waterbodies, and for treating already impacted waterbodies. Macrophytes and the sediments they trap can subsequently be removed from the water, and the sequestered pollutants safely treated or disposed of. The ability of macrophytes to assimilate, trap, and take-up pollutants such as microbial pathogens carrying genes for AMR has previously been demonstrated in very small-scale controlled laboratory experiments (mainly in China). Therefore, the overarching aim of this project is to optimise a series of field-scale strategies that can improve water quality by exploiting the ability of aquatic plants to assimilate waterborne microbial pathogens and emerging pollutants of concern (e.g., microplastics) and provide innovative low-cost solutions relevant for Scottish catchments.

By integrating biological, environmental, and engineering dimensions that cut across traditional academic disciplines, this PhD studentship will explore the opportunities for phytoremediation and removal of AMR pathogens in multi-pollutant impacted waters (e.g., feeder streams and natural water bodies). Therefore, this project will provide transformative and sustainable solutions to address the increasing demand for raw water security. The student will contribute towards a strategic blueprint that could be translated to other areas of the world where there is growing pressure on water resources because of increasing population demands and provide the scientific basis for national scaling-up in countries with significant water security challenges.

Research objectives

  1. Identify UK native macrophyte species with a high efficiency for binding, uptake, or sequestration of AMR pathogens and other emerging pollutants, e.g., microplastics.
  2. Develop and optimise novel ecological engineering solutions for field deployment, e.g., Floating Treatment Wetlands for targeted removal of pathogens in large waterbodies, and Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) to reduce the delivery of pathogens at source.
  3. Undertake field-scale experiments to determine realistic in situ pollutant extraction efficiency rates, and model potential for scaling up.


The student will use a combined field and laboratory-based experimental approach, to provide the fundamental understanding necessary to deliver a step-change in our understanding of novel field-scale ecological engineering phytoremediation strategies. In all cases, locally adapted native species of macrophytes will be used and existing infrastructure, and waterbodies belonging to the University of Stirling (e.g., Airthrey Loch), will be used for the development of field-scale trials and experiments. The ecological framework of this project facilitates the sustainable management of our water resources within an ecosystem services context, and the project offers ‘added value’ to phytoremediation options by further increasing ecosystem service and economic benefits for sustainably removing diffuse pollutants from raw water.

Applicants are strongly advised to make an informal enquiry about the PhD to the primary supervisor well before the final submission deadline.

Applicants must send a completed Hydro Nation Scholarship application form and their Curriculum Vitae to Prof Richard Quilliam () by the final submission deadline of 10th January 2024.

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Biological Sciences (4) Environmental Sciences (13)

Funding Notes

The Hydro Nation Scholars Programme is an open competition for PhD Scholars to undertake approved projects, hosted within Scottish Universities and Research Institutes. This project will be hosted by the University of Stirling. Full funding is available from the Scottish Government (to host institutions via the Scottish Funding Council). The funding available will be in line with the UKRI doctoral stipend levels and indicative fees. Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent). Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed on 7th or 8th February 2024

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