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Mad, bad and dangerous: Multiple stressors in coastal ecosystems

   School of Biology

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  Dr Julie Hope, Prof D M Paterson  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Climate change research has often focussed on charismatic ecosystems and species, but it should be recognised that the powerhouse of ecosystem function rests with the microbial world. Benthic microbial biofilm communities play vital roles in nutrient/organic matter cycling, ecosystem productivity, food web dynamics and sediment transport1. While microbes are numerous and adaptable, we have limited information on how microbial systems respond to the combined challenges of climate change and other anthropogenic stressors. Indeed, while climate change and microplastic (MP) pollution are two of the most challenging global environmental issues of our time, their combined effects remain understudied. These and other stressors may however interact and exacerbate one another2. MPs accumulate in transitional waters and bottom sediments so they will undoubtedly interact with benthic microbial organisms, often forming biofilms, living on sediment surfaces as these are known sinks for particulate matter3,4. MP exposure may influence biofilm community biomass, structure and key biogeochemical processes5,6 and their role in processes and functions in already vulnerable ecosystems. The ecosystems resilience to other perturbations such as increasing temperatures, heatwaves and contaminant exposure may also be influenced by MP presence on the bed.

This interdisciplinary project will combine field and laboratory mesocosm experiments to examine the effect of selected multiple stressors on the biodiversity and function of sediment-inhabiting microbial biofilms. Changes to the prokaryotic (bacteria) and eukaryotic (i.e. diatom) biofilm assemblages will be investigated together, combining traditional methods of taxonomic analysis (light and fluorescence microscopy) and genome sequencing. Invertebrate community shifts and key microbially driven ecosystem functions (see above) will also be quantified.


The multidisciplinary supervisory team consists of Dr Julie Hope (Primary, Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI), University of St Andrews), Prof. David Paterson (SOI, University of St Andrews) and Dr Tony Gutierrez (School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Heriot Watt University). The successful candidate will be enrolled in the MASTS Graduate School for the PhD candidate to take advantage of the various skills development and training opportunities. The successful candidate will be based at the SOI and will have the support of the St Andrews Bioinformatics Unit (StABU).

For any informal enquiries about the PhD project please contact Dr Julie Anne Hope [Email Address Removed]. The start date of this project is October 2023

Information on the Scottish Oceans Institute, Super DTP, MASTS and life at The University of St Andrews can be found at:





How to apply

 Please make a formal application to the School of Biology through our Online Application Portal.

The following documents are required;

  • CV
  • Cover letter/ personal statement stating why you are suitable for this position
  • An outline of your own research proposal for this project (1-2 page max) 
  • Contact details for 2 referees
  • Academic qualifications
  • English language qualification (if applicable).



Funding for this 3.5 year project will cover Home (UK) fees and may be completed part time (50% FTE). A yearly stipend will be provided based on RCUK rates (£17,668 for the 2022/23 academic year) and additional funding is available for research training and professional development.

The ideal candidate will have a strong academic record with a 2.1 or above undergraduate Honours degree and ideally a MSc degree (or international equivalent) in a relevant field. This may be marine/freshwater biology, environmental biology, microbiology or ecology but other fields may be considered if your experience is relevant. We are looking for a highly organised and self-motivated individual who enjoys working as part of a team. Relevant laboratory experience would be desirable and experience with mesocosm set-up/maintenance and fieldwork would be beneficial, as would some basic knowledge of biochemistry. The ideal candidate would have a good background in experimental design, data handling and analysis and have excellent English communication and scientific writing skills. A full driving license enabling to drive in the UK would be desirable but is not essential.

Funding Notes

This is a fully funded PhD project through The Scottish Universities Partnership for Environmental Research Doctoral Training Partnership and collaborative partners.

The studentship covers full tuition fees (UK fee rate only) and a living stipend for 3.5 years.
International students are eligible to apply. However, the international fees are not covered as standard. If the successful applicant is not eligible for the UK fee rate, then the potential for separate funding to cover the additional fees would be explored. Please note, unfortunately it is likely that VISA and Immigration Health Surcharges would need to be covered by the international student.


[1] Hope, J.A. et al. 2020. J. Ecol. 108, 815–830.
[2] Cabral, H. et al. 2019. Int. J. Environ. Health Res. 16:2737.
[3] Kalčíková, G. & Bundschuh, M. 2021. Env Tox & Chem, 41:4.
[4] Guasch, H. et al. 2022. Fresh. Sci. 41:3.
[5] Hope, J.A. et al. 2021. Env. Poll. 288:117731.
[6] Ladewig et al. 2023. Sci. Tot. Env. 858:160114
[7] Seeley et al. 2020. Nat. Comms, 11:1.

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