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The identification of micro-pollutants in waste water using structural alerts and high resolution liquid chromatography mass spectrometry with non-targeted analysis

About This PhD Project

Project Description


The environmental problems associated with micro-pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products reaching water courses from waste water effluent are well documented. There are over 3000 pharmaceuticals prescribed worldwide and a multitude of ingredients in personal care products. Clearly these cannot all be determined in a complex matrix such as waste water by targeted analysis alone. Typically 70% of organic compounds within a waste water sample are “unknown”. Current prioritisation of micro-pollutants is based on an environmental risk assessment which is generally related to the quantity prescribed or used with little consideration about the toxicity, mode of action, metabolites or breakdown products. At the drug discovery stage the pharmaceutical industry uses techniques such as “structural alerts” as indicators to identify and avoid compounds with potential toxic effects. These “structural alerts” identify part of the pharmaceutical molecule with either high chemical reactivity or which can be easily enzymatically converted to such an entity thereby causing toxicity. Although these are avoided when developing new drug entities, pharmaceuticals can undergo chemical changes prior to excretion or during waste water treatment to form these types of potentially toxic micro-pollutants in the environment.

High resolution liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (HRMS) is an advanced separation technique which can determine the mass of an unknown to a high degree of accuracy and when coupled with advanced software can aid the identification of unknown micro-pollutants. The identity of the unknown micro-pollutant can be verified from compound databases and from other characteristic spectroscopic information. This technique, known as non-targeted analysis, could be used to identify micro-pollutants in waste water which contain “structural alerts” and are therefore potentially toxic. These would be identified in waste water effluent prior to discharge into river water and have the potential to greatly improve river water quality.


This PhD will focus on discovering previously unknown and environmentally relevant micro-pollutants in waste water using high resolution mass spectrometry to identify “structural alerts” The goal is not to provide an exhaustive list of contaminants but to explore the potential of this type of investigation to allow identification of a wider range of compounds in the environment.


The successful applicant will be a will have a minimum 2.1 degree in chemistry or related science. Knowledge of liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry and a good understanding of organic chemistry is essential. Familiarity with databases and understanding of computer software would be an advantage.

Additional application requirements: only include the following if you wish the applicant to provide a worked up research proposal for the project or you have other application requirements additional to the standard application materials.

Research Strategy and Research Profile

Glasgow Caledonian University’s research is framed around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We address the Goals via three societal challenge areas of Inclusive Societies, Healthy Lives and Sustainable Environments. This studentship aligns with the goals of GCU under Sustainable Environment as it is relevant to improving water quality.
This project is part of the research activity of the Water Research Group – Sustainable Environments. Additionally this studentship will support GCU’s aims of developing early career researchers as the DOS fits the criteria.

How to Apply

Applicants will normally hold a UK honours degree 2:1 (or equivalent); or a Masters degree in a subject relevant to the research project. Equivalent professional qualifications and any appropriate research experience may be considered. A minimum English language level of IELTS score of 6.5 (or equivalent) with no element below 6.0 is required. Some research disciplines may require higher levels.

Candidates are encouraged to contact the research supervisors for the project before applying. Applicants should complete the online GCU Research Application Form, stating the Project Title and Reference Number (listed above).

Please also attach to the online application, copies of academic qualifications (including IELTS if required), 2 references and any other relevant documentation.

Please send any enquiries regarding your application to: Applicants shortlisted for the PhD project will be contacted for an interview.

For more information on How to apply and the online application form please go to

Dr Joanne Roberts.

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