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  Novel insights into urban pollution of freshwater ecosystems derived from integrative ecotoxicology, genetics and hydrologic modelling

   School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society

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  Dr C Magill, Dr J de Rezende  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Scientific challenge: Freshwater systems are one of the most threatened habitat types on Earth. Within this context, increases in urbanisation and the effects of anthropogenic climate change have led to a decrease in water quality and availability worldwide. Urban runoff together with sewerage design have facilitated the spread of hazardous urban pollutants – especially polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and microplastics (MPs) – into regional waterbodies and their respective wetlands. Yet, though there is clear scientific consensus about the negative consequences of these dynamic stressors on aquatic environments, mechanistic and baseline data are still lacking.

A distinct lack of holistic multidisciplinary perspectives about PAH and MP dynamics viz. source(s)-to-sink and delivery pathway present difficulties in our search for solutions to effectively grapple with freshwater environment degradation. Here, we seek to address such key gaps in knowledge about urban pollution dynamics by investigating the occurrence, abundance and distribution of urban contaminants (PAHs and MPs) and microbial biodiversity within a robust hydrologic model framework for an emerging pollution hotspot viz. Edinburgh. In this project, we will focus on local-to-regional landscapes around Central Scotland, but the potential for other regions and larger spatial scales is notable and directly present themselves as strategic foci of future proposals. Indeed, this research stands to establish a new approach to understanding pathways of human contamination in critical freshwater systems.

Background: PAHs and MPs are directly linked to urban environments via human activities (i.e., contamination source) and dispersal through runoff. Transmission of these contaminants from urban areas to aquatic environments is facilitated by stormwater drainage systems, which accumulate and integrate runoff – together with any pollutants – before feeding into (fresh) water systems. Within this context, sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) have been actively promoted by the UK government to improve surface water quality by allowing pollutants to settle in small basins instead of flowing directly into surface reservoirs.

Despite emerging promotion of SuDS, there is minimal literature available to robustly track the movement and transformation of PAHs and MPs in runoff from urban environments and there is a distinct lack of data about their incorporation into drainage systems. Literature reviews underscore exciting potential for numerical hydrological models as a uniquely powerful tool to interpolate contaminant data with diversity parameters to understand the mechanisms of biodegradation.

Biodegradation is one of the principal mechanisms for urban contamination removal in water, soils and sediment. The rate and efficacy of biodegradation depends on immediate environmental conditions, coincident (micro)biome composition, and the chemical composition of the contaminants themselves. Small freshwater systems (such as SuDS) show intense responses to environmental stressors, especially in their microbiota. Yet, there are scant few studies linking particular contaminants with microbiota in urban environments. This ambiguous connection in addition to nominal information about the exact PAHs and MP-associated with microbiome change undermines much of the exciting potential for targeted use of microbiota in reducing pollution in critical freshwater environments.

Project description: This work will take advantage of state-of-the-art techniques in PAH and MP identification and quantification to explore which urban contaminants occur in recent SuDS around Edinburgh. This information will be complemented by genomic sequencing (16S/18S rRNA) of the same samples to establish microorganism communities composition. Then, insights about PAHs, MP and microbiome will be incorporated into robust hydrologic models (GeoPython) to establish contamination sources, transmission routes, sinks and (bio)degradation rates in an effort to resolve explicit legislative recommendations about the remediation and future management of urban pollution in south central Scotland.

Eligibility : This project is open to all students, whether home, EU or overseas.

The ideal candidate will have at least an undergraduate (2:1) and preferably Master’s degree in environmental science or related field, together with independent field experience and knowledge of hydrologic modelling platforms vis-à-vis GeoPython or similar software environment. Previous experience and knowledge of basic organic geochemical laboratory techniques is also desirable.

We recognise that not every talented researcher will have had the same opportunities to advance their careers. We therefore will account for any particular circumstances that applicants disclose (e.g. parental leave, caring duties, part-time jobs to support studies, disabilities etc.) to ensure an inclusive and fair recruitment process.  

How to Apply: To apply you must complete our online application form.

Select PhD Environment as the programme and include the full project title, reference number and supervisor name on your application form. Ensure that all fields marked as ‘required’ are complete.

Once have entered your personal details, click submit. You will be asked to upload your supporting documents. You must complete the section marked project proposal; provide a supporting statement (1-2 A4 pages) documenting your reasons for applying to this particular project, outlining your suitability and how you would approach the project. You must also upload your CV, a copy of your degree certificate and relevant transcripts and an academic reference in the relevant section of the application form.

You must also provide proof of your ability in the English language (if English is not your mother tongue). We require an IELTS certificate showing an overall score of at least 6.5 with no component scoring less than 6.0, or a TOEFL certificate with an overall score of at least 85, including reading 20, listening 19, speaking 20 and writing 21. Alternatively, if you have received an English-taught Bachelors or Masters degree from one of the countries listed on the UK Government Guidance under ‘Who does not need to prove their knowledge of English’, and it was obtained less than two years from your intended start date, you should provide evidence of your award that clearly states it was delivered and assessed in English language.

The primary supervisor for this project is Clayton Magill and second supervisor is Julia de Rezende. Please contact [Email Address Removed] for further information or an informal discussion.

Please contact [Email Address Removed] for technical support with your application.


The closing date for applications is 22 March 2024 and applicants must be available to start in September 2024.

Environmental Sciences (13) Geography (17)

Funding Notes

James Watt Scholarship
This is a full scholarship which will cover tuition fees (Home and Oversees) and provide an annual stipend (£19,237 in 2024-25) for 42 months. Thereafter, candidates will be expected to pay a continuing affiliation fee (currently £130) whilst they complete writing up their thesis.