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Uncovering the long term sensitivity of Southern Ocean phytoplankton to Antarctic climate change, using novel geochemical and ancient DNA proxies. Geology PhD Studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded)

College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences

Dr S Kender , Prof J Scourse Friday, January 08, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The Antarctic is changing. Delicate ecosystems, from marine mammals and birds, to the phytoplankton at the base of the food web, are under threat from both global warming and human activities such as fishing and whaling. The goal of this project is to better understand how Antarctic phytoplankton will react and adapt to future changes, by examining changes in the past.

The early Holocene is characterised by warming comparable to future 21st century projections, and the Holocene/Anthropocene transition experienced severe environmental disturbance from climate change and fishing during the acceleration of industrialisation. However, there are no fossil records from many of the main phytoplankton groups with which to examine their past sensitivity. In this project the student will reconstruct past phytoplankton changes in the Southern Ocean, and the offshore Antarctic Peninsula, with diatom micropalaeontology and sedimentary ancient DNA – a new technique recently developed for non-fossilising groups. The student will also use geochemistry to date the core material, and reconstruct environmental change.

Project Aims and Methods:

The aims of this project are to provide the first records of past changes to Antarctic phytoplankton from species that do not produce a fossil record. Sediment core palaeo-proxies for stable isotopes and micropalaeontology will aid in constraining our reconstructions of past marine environments, with which to build a new understanding of the main causes of phytoplankton change both in the past and into the future. The student will have opportunities to be involved in the design of the project, particularly with respect to the existing skills and interest in marine, earth and biological sciences. A range of palaeoproxies are available including but not limited to ancient DNA, isotope geochemistry, and micropalaeontology.

Candidate requirements:

The candidate must have a 1st or Upper 2nd class degree in either Earth or Biological Sciences, and the project can be taken in different directions depending on expertise and interest.

Collaborative partner:

For this project the Natural History Museum, London, will act as a collaborative partner, providing opportunities for laboratory work experience and additional funding.


The student will have access to a wide range of training made available for at least 3 months of the studentship via the GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership. The student will receive additional specialist training in sedimentary ancient DNA extraction, analysis, and interpretation. The student will have the chance to gain experience in geochemical and micropalaeontological techniques, and will be supported to apply for Antarctic ship-based fieldwork experience if interested. Experience presenting at national and international conferences will be provided.


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.

Studentships for international students will only cover fees at the UK home fees rate. However, university tuition fees for international students are higher than the UK home fees rate therefore the difference will need to be funded from a separate source which the student or project supervisor may have to find. Unfortunately, the NERC GW4+ DTP cannot fund this difference from out studentship funding Further guidance on how this will work will be issued in November.

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2021 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,285 per annum for 2020-21.


Coolen, M.J.L. et al. 2013. Evolution of the plankton paleome in the Black Sea from the Deglacial to Anthropocene. P. Nat. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 8609–8614.

Deppeler, S.L. & Davidson, A.T. 2017. Southern Ocean phytoplankton in a changing climate. Front. Mar. Sci. 4, 40. Pike, J. et al. 2013.

Glacial discharge along the west Antarctic Peninsula during the Holocene. Nat. Geosci. 6, 199–202.
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