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Origins and Transitions of Modern Ecosystems (RDF23/GES/LIU)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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  Dr Yao Liu, Prof Bronwen Whitney  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Globally, increasing temperature and extreme heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, and storms are leading to the replacement of dominant plant types by others. Such “ecosystem transformations”, with associated changes in ecosystem service and biodiversity, will continue and accelerate in the coming decades under climate change. To date, most research has focused on the loss of current ecosystems. Effective conservation, however, must also consider how ecosystems originate(d). Using palaeoecological approaches, this project will investigate the circumstances leading to origination, maintenance, and termination of an ecosystem. The research findings can provide context for conservation baseline and guide management applications to restore or create new ecosystems, in both human-impacted and relatively “natural” environments.

Key research questions include: 1. What are the conditions (e.g., gradual or abrupt climate change, extreme events, disturbance, land-use, combinations of these) leading to the origination of a specific modern ecosystem? 2. What predictable progressions characterise ecosystem transformations? For example, if Forest Type A always originates from the termination of Forest B or C. 3. What conservation baseline and management applications are implicated for restoring or creating new ecosystems under climate change? The student will use open data from the Neotoma Paleoecology Database and other paleoenvironmental datasets to investigate ecosystem transformations over the past 20,000 years. In addition to a global picture, intensive case studies from relatively “natural” environments (e.g., North America) and those largely shaped by human activities (e.g., Britain) over the Holocene will be compared. The student will also address an important methodological challenge: finding (or developing) appropriate metrics to identify ecosystem transformations.

Collaboration within Northumbria and with the wider community is expected to ensure the student will be broadly trained in vegetation history across biomes, informatics and statistics of paleoenvironmental data, and global change ecology. The student is also encouraged and will be supported to develop collaboration with conservation organisations nationally and internationally.

Academic Enquiries

This project is supervised by Dr. Yao Liu. For informal queries, please contact [Email Address Removed]. For all other enquiries relating to eligibility or application process please use the email form below to contact Admissions. 

Funding Information

Home and International students (inc. EU) are welcome to apply. The studentship is available to Home and International (including EU) students and includes a full stipend at UKRI rates (for 2022/23 full-time study this is £17,668 per year) and full tuition fees. Studentships are also available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £10,600 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities).  

Please also see further advice below of additional costs that may apply to international applicants.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if they are already a PhD holder or if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

Please note: to be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have settled status, or
  • have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have indefinite leave to remain or enter.

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student.  Applicants will need to be in the UK and fully enrolled before stipend payments can commence, and be aware of the following additional costs that may be incurred, as these are not covered by the studentship.

  • Immigration Health Surcharge
  • If you need to apply for a Student Visa to enter the UK, please refer to the information on It is important that you read this information very carefully as it is your responsibility to ensure that you hold the correct funds required for your visa application otherwise your visa may be refused.
  • Check what COVID-19 tests you need to take and the quarantine rules for travel to England
  • Costs associated with English Language requirements which may be required for students not having completed a first degree in English, will not be borne by the university. Please see individual adverts for further details of the English Language requirements for the university you are applying to.

How to Apply

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see   

For applications to be considered for interview, please include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words and the advert reference (e.g. RDF23/…).

Deadline for applications: 27 January 2023

Start date of course: 1 October 2023 tbc

Northumbria University is committed to creating an inclusive culture where we take pride in, and value, the diversity of our doctoral students. We encourage and welcome applications from all members of the community. The University holds a bronze Athena Swan award in recognition of our commitment to advancing gender equality, we are a Disability Confident Employer, a member of the Race Equality Charter and are participating in the Stonewall Diversity Champion Programme. We also hold the HR Excellence in Research award for implementing the concordat supporting the career Development of Researchers.


Liu, Y., Jackson, S.T., Brewer, S. and Williams, J.W., 2010, March. Assessing antiquity and turnover of terrestrial ecosystems in eastern North America using fossil pollen data: a preliminary study. In IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science (Vol. 9, No. 1, p. 012005). IOP Publishing.
Jackson, S.T., 2021. Transformational ecology and climate change. Science, 373(6559), pp.1085-1086.

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