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Linking biodiversity with function to provide indicators of tipping points in freshwater environmental risk assessment

Project Description

Environmental risk assessment is used to determine the likelihood of adverse ecological effects occurring resulting from a certain chemical (or less frequently, a combination of chemicals) at a specific concentration entering the environment. Ecological effects are normally evaluated using proxy measures to represent ecosystem health. In freshwaters, environmental risk assessment commonly uses single indicators as proxies for ecosystem health. These are based commonly on the results of toxicity tests on single species with the use of assessment factors to account to uncertainties. However, when the objective is to understand and minimise risks to the ecosystem as a whole, this approach has the potential to give misleading results because single indicators, especially those based on laboratory assessments, may not necessarily be good indicators of overall ecosystem health.

Therefore, there is the potential to develop more robust ecological risk assessments using indicators that better represent ecosystem functions and processes. This is not straightforward since different indicators sometimes respond to environmental stress in different ways. Moreover, the relationships of potential indicators such as measures of biodiversity with ecosystem function, whilst generally positive, are not always linear. Therefore, the effects of loss of biodiversity on ecosystem function can be difficult to predict.

This PhD project will use existing datasets to build a better understanding of the relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem function in aquatic ecosystems. The student will use this evidence to inform the development of freshwater risk assessments that incorporate more robust indicators of ecosystem health. It is critical that we develop these new approaches to risk assessment since they could provide ‘early warnings’ of sudden ecosystem changes due to current management practices and stressors.

The PhD will have three main aims:

• To examine the relationships between indicators of biodiversity and ecosystem function in freshwater systems within the same eco-regions, and the extent to which a focus on either biodiversity or ecosystem functions may reveal or obscure important changes in other ecosystem properties or overall freshwater ecosystem health.
• To evaluate the impact of chemical and other stressors on ecosystem functions, including any evidence for threshold effects and/or redundancy, whether specific traits of species make them particularly vulnerable to loss from freshwater ecosystems and the potential impacts on ecosystem function.
• To determine the robustness of using certain species as proxies for ecosystem function (and vice versa) in freshwater risk assessments, that could serve as indicators and metrics of ecosystem health and provide ‘early warnings’ of sudden ecosystem changes due to current practices and stressors.

The student will a member of the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership in Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment (ACCE), which is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

The University of York will be the lead institution for the PhD, and will serve as the primary base for the PhD student. The University of Sheffield will act as the second institution for the PhD student. The student will follow the requirements of the NERC ACCE PhD programme, and benefit from training activities provided at ACCE programme level by the Universities of York, Sheffield and Liverpool. The student will be registered in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of York and follow the Department of Environment and Geography’s progression requirements. These are consistent with the requirements of the University of York, as set out by the York Graduate Research School.

University supervision will be provided by Professor Piran White and Professor Jane Hill at the University of York and Professor Lorraine Maltby at the University of Sheffield. The student will also be supervised by Dr Geoff Hodges and Dr Claudia Rivetti at Unilever.

The PhD student will be based primarily at the University of York, but will also have desk space available in Professor Maltby’s group at the University of Sheffield, and will be encouraged to visit Sheffield and make use of the opportunities provided by co-supervision across two academic institutions. Over the 4 years of the PhD, the student will spend a minimum of 3 months at Unilever, the CASE partner organisation.

Funding Notes

This is a 4-year fully-funded studentship, which is part of the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership in Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment (ACCE). The studentship covers: (i) a tax-free stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£15,009 for 2019/20), (ii) tuition fees at UK/EU rate, and (iii) research consumables and training necessary for the project.


Entry requirements: At least an upper second class honours degree, or equivalent in any relevant subject that provides the necessary skills, knowledge and experience for the DTP, including environmental, biological, chemical, mathematical and physical sciences.

Eligibility: The studentships are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK Research and Innovation residency requirements (to be residing in the UK for at least three years continuously prior to the beginning of the programme).

Shortlisting: Applicants will be notified if they have been selected for interview in the week commencing on Monday 14 October 2019.

Interviews: Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of York on the afternoon of 28 or 31 October 2019. Prior to the interview candidates will be asked to give a 5-minute presentation on a research project carried out by them.

Related Subjects

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FTE Category A staff submitted: 24.10

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