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NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: Multi-trait evolution in host-parasite systems

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the Universities of Bath, Bristol and Exeter and Cardiff University plus five prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad multi-disciplinary training, designed to produce tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science.


Lead Supervisor: Dr Ben Ashby, University of Bath, Department of Mathematical Sciences
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Edze Westra, University of Exeter, Environment and Sustainability Institute


Understanding the fundamental processes and mechanisms that shape host and parasite evolution is crucial both for improving disease management and for gaining insights into a wide range of biological phenomena, such as patterns of biodiversity across space and time. Hosts and parasites do not exist in isolation, but instead belong to multi-species communities, and interactions with more than one species are likely to simultaneously affect the evolution of multiple traits. For example, hosts may trade off investment in specific/general and adaptive/innate resistance mechanisms depending on the diversity of parasites in the community.

The purpose of this project is to develop and test new theoretical models of how multiple defence and counter-defence traits co-evolve in hosts and parasites. This interdisciplinary project brings together expertise in mathematical biology (Bath) to model ecology and evolution, and microbiology (Exeter) to test predictions experimentally. Joining a longstanding research collaboration between Dr Ashby (Bath) and Prof. Westra (Exeter), the student will use mathematical modelling to explore how multiple traits co-evolve in host-parasite systems and will have the opportunity to test key predictions using experimental evolution of microbial communities.


The central aim of the project is to develop general eco-evolutionary theory to understand how multi-trait co-evolution unfolds in host-parasite communities. The student will be involved with project design and research direction under the guidance of the supervisors. For example, the student may wish to explore when hosts are likely to evolve adaptive or innate immune responses, or whether parasites with broader host ranges will evolve to be more or less virulent. The student will learn and apply a wide range of modelling techniques to address these questions, including approaches from population genetics, quantitative genetics, adaptive dynamics, and evolutionary game theory, along with numerical analysis and individual based modelling.

In addition to the core theoretical work, the student will have the opportunity to visit the Westra laboratory to test predictions through experimental evolution of bacteria and viruses. It is expected in year 1 that the student will make short visits to the Westra lab to develop projects and learn experimental techniques, if required. Subsequent visits in years 2-4 to carry out experiments may take place over longer periods if necessary or desired.


Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an area appropriate to the skills requirements of the project.

A suitable candidate will have a strong background in mathematics and a keen interest in modelling biological systems. Prior laboratory experience is not required.


Enquiries relating to the project should be directed to Dr Ben Ashby, .

Enquiries relating to the application process should be directed to

Candidates should apply formally using the relevant University of Bath online application form:

When completing the form, please state in the ‘Finance’ section that you wish to be considered for NERC GW4+ DTP funding and quote the project title and lead supervisor’s name in the ‘Your research interests’ section. If you wish, you may apply for more than one project within the same application but you should submit a separate personal statement for each one.

More information on how to apply may be found here:

Anticipated start date: 28 September 2020.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ DTP funding is for 3.5 years and is open to UK and EU applicants who have been resident in the UK since September 2017.

A studentship will provide UK/EU tuition fees, maintenance in line with the UKRI Doctoral stipend rate (£15,009 per annum, 2019/20 rate) and a generous budget for research expenses and training.


Ashby et al. (2019) Understanding the role of eco-evolutionary feedbacks in host-parasite coevolution. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 464:115-125

Westra et al. (2015) Parasite Exposure Drives Selective Evolution of Constitutive versus Inducible Defense. Current Biology, 25:1043-1049

How good is research at University of Bath in Mathematical Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 44.40

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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