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Past and present spatial patterning in the newly-discovered peat swamp forest environments of the central Congo Basin

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, January 18, 2019
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About This PhD Project

Project Description

The aim of this PhD studentship is to contribute to the NERC-funded CongoPeat project, which involves a team from the Universities of Leeds, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Leicester, Nottingham, and Exeter, and many project partners, and which aims to better understand the development, contemporary function and future of the Congo Basin peat swamp forests.

The first work-package (WP1) of the project has as its objective to “Understand the genesis, development and maintenance of the peatland complex”. Within that framework, the student will be working alongside a post-doctoral research assistant (PDRA) on the following key research questions:

1. How and why has peat accumulation varied through time?
2. Did peatland ecosystems develop in the same way throughout the peatland complex, e.g. by paludification or terrestrialization?
3. How have the peatland vegetation, hydrology and trophic status changed in recent centuries/decades, and how would we expect them to continue to change over the coming decades in the absence of additional disturbance?
4. Are the strong spatial patterns in vegetation visible in satellite data a spatial expression of
temporal succession?

The student will seek to describe and explain the present-day spatial patterning in peat and vegetation properties within four individual peatlands. They will undertake pollen and charcoal analysis, geochemical analyses, and dating at low (~500-1000 year) temporal resolution across at least three cores per transect, and will study surface samples arranged along environmental gradients at these sites (200 pollen/charcoal/geochemistry samples in total, 25 14C dates). The student’s project will complement more intensive single-core studies carried out at each site by the PDRA, and has theoretical links to literatures on plant succession, chronosequences, and environmental gradients.

The student will participate in at least one ten-week field campaign to either the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Republic of Congo in order to collect samples. Fieldwork will require working for extended periods in the hot, humid conditions of tropical swamp forest, camping in the forest or in villages, and with transport by boat and on foot.

Labwork will focus on microscopic analysis of pollen and charcoal, with some time spent on other types of analysis. The student will be fully trained in palynological techniques, including sample preparation (they will be expected to prepare their own samples – this is a vital part of training). The student should have an enthusiasm for careful microscopic analysis and they will be expected to visit reference collections in the UK, France and Germany.

The student will be expected to develop their work for publication and for presentation at international conferences, with full support from their supervisors.

The student will join an interdisciplinary team of tropical peatland specialists at St Andrews and will work closely with a post-doctoral research assistant on the CongoPeat project based in the same laboratory, as well as with researchers working on similar questions in Peru. Supervisors are Dr Ian Lawson, Dr Katherine Roucoux, and Prof Simon Lewis (Leeds). Applicants can read more about our work at

The student will be based in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, along with ~35 other PhD students.

How to apply
We invite applications from well qualified candidates with a background in Geography, Geology, Ecology, or a related science-based discipline. Applicants should have experience of fieldwork in challenging conditions, and experience of microscope analysis; previous training in Quaternary palaeoecology would be an advantage.

Apply online using the online research application form. Please note that we additionally require you to submit a recent, relevant piece of academic work (a dissertation, for example).

Questions should be addressed to Dr Ian Lawson, . More information, including a list of suggested further reading can be found at

The studentship is funded for four years. Please note that additional eligibility criteria may apply; contact us for further information.

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