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  Love isn’t in the air: Assessing how air pollution interrupts insect sex pheromone signalling

   School of Agriculture, Policy and Development

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  Dr R Girling, Dr Stephen Elmore, Dr Ben Langford  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Many insects rely upon odours to perceive and interact with their environment. Such odours are used to complete vital everyday tasks, for example locating food (e.g. a flower’s scent) or finding a mate (i.e. pheromones). However, there is growing evidence to suggests that common air pollutants such as ozone and nitrogen oxides (NOx) may react with and disrupt many of the odour compounds that insects use for communication.

Currently, very little is known about how air pollution interferes with the pheromones that insects use to locate members of the opposite sex. During this PhD project you will conduct the first mechanistic field-scale investigation into the effects of common air pollutants on insect pheromone communication. To facilitate this, you will use a globally unique state-of-the-art Free Air Diesel and Ozone Enrichment (FADOE) research platform, based at the University of Reading. FADOE allows elevation of diesel exhaust or ozone air pollution allowing field studies on the impacts of air pollution on insect behavioural ecology.

These studies will be complemented by laboratory experiments investigating changes to in-flight behaviour using our bespoke insect wind-tunnel to identify the impacts on in-flight orientation behavior of pheromone degradation by air pollution. You will also conduct chemical analyses, using Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) to understand the chemical changes that occur to these pheromones when combined with air pollutants.

Finally, these mechanistic laboratory-based studies will then be related back to the field. Inside the FADOE facility, you will use a Proton Transfer Reaction Time of Flight Mass Spectrometer (PTR-TOFMS) to analyse, for the first time in any study, the degradation of pheromones in real-time under field conditions.

Training opportunities:

The project offers training stints at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Edinburgh and the potential to visit, train and conduct studies at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany. Training will be provided in use of the FADOE facility PTR-TOFMS, GC-MS, the use of wind-tunnels, behavioural/ecological assays as well as general laboratory and fieldwork skills.

•The project is suitable for a student with a first or upper second-class degree in the biological/ecological sciences. Experience of fieldwork or insect behavioural ecology would be beneficial because this will make up the core of the student’s research, however these skills are not essential because training opportunities will be provided. A basic understanding of organic chemistry and a prior knowledge of the chemical analysis techniques (GC-MS, PTR-TOFMS) is not essential because training will be provided to enable the student to develop in this area. The student should be able to demonstrate a capacity to quickly learn and master new technologies and techniques.

•Only students eligible for a Home award can apply for this project. To check eligibility UKRI Guidance. 

How to apply: To apply click Apply for a Programme create your account and use the link sent by email to start the application process.  During the application process please select a PhD in Ecology and Agri-Environmental Research

*Important notes*

1) Please quote the reference ‘GS22-129’ in the ‘Scholarships applied for’ box which appears within the Funding Section of your on-line application. 

2) To help reduce unconscious bias, we will anonymise parts of your application. The selection panel will base selection to interview on (1) your (predicted) grade and name of degree, (2) your personal statement

3) When you are prompted by the online application system to upload a research proposal, please instead attach a Personal Statement. This statement should answer the following questions:

a. Why do you want to do a PhD?

b. What skills and experience do you have that would make you a good PhD researcher?

c. Tell us about any circumstances that have affected your academic career to date? For example (but not limited to) caring responsibilities, disabilities or financial pressures

d. Why is this project of interest to you? What skills and experience can you bring to it? Mention any courses you have taken than are particularly relevant to this project.

4) Instead of a CV please upload a second anonymous document that:

a. Lists undergraduate and post-graduate level qualifications (degree certificates and transcripts should also be attached to this application). Where your final grade is not yet known, please provide a predicted grade.

b. Provides the names of two referees, one of which must be an academic referee to confirm your degree and grades, or predicted grades. Your second referee could be someone to confirm specific skills or experience.

Agriculture (1) Biological Sciences (4) Chemistry (6) Environmental Sciences (13)

Funding Notes

•Starts January 2023
•3-year award
•Funding covers full UK tuition fees plus UKRI stipend of £17,668 per year
•Information on the NERC SCENARIO DTP can be found at:


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