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NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership Studentship: Impact of toxic metal contamination on freshwater snails in the Kruger National Park (South Africa) using an ecogenomics approach

Cardiff School of Biosciences

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Dr Isa-Rita Russo No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Project Background
South Africa is naturally water scarce with annual rainfall half the global average. Recent years of below average rainfall have already put tremendous pressure on wildlife and human populations in the region. The demand for water is predicted to outstrip supply by 2025 and therefore, to safeguard this resource for future generations evidence needs to be generated to inform adequate legal protection for strategic water resources. Toxic metals are naturally present in the environment but due to anthropogenic activities, such as mining and agriculture, can become biologically available and reach toxic levels. This poses serious threats to human and wildlife health via drinking water and food chain biomagnification. Nevertheless, mining has been one of the main economic drivers in South Africa. The country has the world’s fifth largest mining sector in terms of GDP and is the world’s largest producer of manganese, chrome, and platinum-group metals. However, all this mining activity leads to polluted river systems with an obvious environmental cost.

Project Aims and Methods
This project will be conducted in the iconic Kruger National Park, South Africa and the overall aim of the project will be to investigate the effects of toxic metal contamination in freshwater ecosystems. This project will provide essential data on downstream freshwater pollution for future mitigation measures which has the potential to benefit South Africa and other southern African countries with similar challenges. This will contribute to the improvement of human and wildlife health and the provision of potable water. A series of techniques including chemical analysis, DNA barcoding, whole genome sequencing and ecological experiments under laboratory conditions will be utilised to address the overall project aim. The project will consist of four Work Packages (WPs). In brief, WP aims will include: chemical characterisation of water and snail (bioindicator species) tissue samples (WP1), the assessment of freshwater snail taxonomic/genetic diversity and species distributions (WP2), the investigation of genomic profiles of freshwater snails (Biomphalaria pfeifferi) across polluted and pristine river systems and the fine scale population genetic structure of native B. pfeifferi (WP3) and the study of metal exposure in controlled laboratory experiments (WP4). The supervisory team encourage the co-creation of this proposed project by the student to better match the interest of the student.

Candidate requirements
The successful candidate will demonstrate experience in, and willingness to, undertake international field work, specifically in South Africa. A strong background in ecology, population genetics or related molecular approaches and genome analyses, is desirable, and/or experience in statistical analyses/modelling or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are required.

Collaborative partner
National Museum Wales. Training in freshwater snail identifications using a morphological approach.

SANparks. Provides logistics (guides, specific site access, vehicles, laboratory facilities and equipment) and access to the iconic Kruger National Park. Sampling permits and export permits will be approved by the SANParks scientific/ethics committee.

NERC FRESH. The student will join the NERC FRESH cohort of students, having unique access to related freshwater training.

Specific training on the skills required for the project will be provided by Russo (field techniques, molecular sampling, population genetics, genomics), Santos (toxicology experimental design), Cunha (genomics and metallomics) and Rawson (morphological snail identification). Generic training in writing and oral presentation skills and grant writing skills will also be provided. The student will have the opportunity to attend relevant advanced training courses such as the FRESH field skills and DTP statistical analysis in R. The student will be encouraged to present their data at conferences and supported by the Cardiff Doctoral Academy (team building, data and project management).

Funding Notes

This studentship will provide the student with a stipend for 3.5 years of approximately £15,500 p.a., payment of their university tuition fees, a Research and Training and Support Grant (RTSG) of £11,000 and an individual training budget of £3,250.

The individual training budget of £3,250 are funds made available by the DTP to each student to undertake specialist training relating to their project and career development and to pay for travel and accommodation on all courses.


Addo-Bediako et al. (2018). Heavy metal concentrations in water and sediment of the Steelpoort River, Olifants River system, South Africa. African Journal of Aquatic Science 43: 413-416; Nicholson et al. (2018). Rainfall over the African continent from the 19th through the 21st century. Global and Planetary Change 165: 114-127; Niang et al. (2014) In: Climate change 2014: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; Colvin et al. (2016) WWF-SA, Water: Facts and Futures. Rethinking South Africa’s Water Future; Ottermann (2019) In: Protecting the heart of South Africa’s water supply. Rainbow et al (2011). Trophically available metal–a variable feast. Environmental Pollution 159: 2347-2349.


The studentship is open to UK and Irish nationals. International and EU students are also eligible to apply but should note that they may have to pay the difference between the home UKRI fee ( and the institutional International student fee (


Applicants should possess a minimum of an upper second class honours degree, master's degree, or equivalent in a relevant subject. 
Applicants whose first language is not English are normally expected to meet the minimum University requirements (e.g. 6.5 IELTS) 


This studentship has a start date of October 2021. In order to be considered you must submit a formal application via Cardiff University’s online application service. (To access the application system, click the 'Visit Institution' button on this advert) 
There is a box at the top right of the page labelled ‘Apply’, please ensure you select the correct ‘Qualification’ (Doctor of Philosophy), the correct ‘Mode of Study’ (Full Time) and the correct ‘Start Date’ (October 2021). This will take you to the application portal. 

In order to be considered candidates must submit the following information: 

• Supporting statement 
• CV 
• Qualification certificates 
• Proof of English language (if applicable)
• 2 references
• In the research proposal section of the application, please specify the project title and supervisors of the project and copy the project description in the text box provided. In the funding section, select “I will be applying for a scholarship/grant” and specify advertised funding from NERC GW4+ DTP. If you are applying for more than one Cardiff University project, please note this in the research proposal section as the form only allows you to enter one title.

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