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Ecotoxicological Risk Assessment Towards Sustainable Chemical Use (ECORISC)

University of YorkLancaster UniversityThe University of SheffieldCardiff UniversityUniversity of ExeterUK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

A six-year Natural Environment Research Council-funded Centre for Doctoral Training.

The ECORISC Centre for Doctoral Training will produce a generation of innovator scientists that can identify, understand and effectively manage the risks of chemicals through the use of state-of-the art science and out-of-the box thinking.

By combining mechanistic understanding, theoretical advances and modelling approaches we'll contribute to the development of predictive risk assessment frameworks that will allow society to benefit from chemical use while ensuring protection of the natural environment, now and in the future. 

As an ECORISC graduate you'll be an interdisciplinary researcher skilled in experimental, modelling and statistical techniques and able to apply your knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems alongside having an awareness of the wider policy and regulatory context within which chemicals are managed.

You'll be highly employable in global job markets across a range of sectors including:

  • environmental monitoring, protection and regulation
  • chemical development and production
  • water, waste and wastewater management
  • environmental consultancy
  • analytical instrument development and services
  • research.

Applications for 2022/23 are closed. Information on available projects and the application process for 2023/04 will be advertised later in the year


Our track record

ECORISC draws together a critical mass of internationally recognised scientists from the universities of York, Cardiff, Exeter, Lancaster, Sheffield, and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrolody (UKCEH) who are ranked among the best in the UK in Biological Sciences, Chemistry and Environmental Science. In recent years our institutions have a research focus on environmental sustainability, demonstrated by significant capital investments made in the environmental sciences area.

As one of our students you'll be supervised by some of the leading UK scientists with international reputations in our research themes and will have access to world-beating research facilities.

Our expertise

  • Different levels of biological organisation from genes to ecosystems
  • The full breadth of chemical classes (small organic compounds, polymers, nanomaterials, metals and natural toxins)
  • Environmental compartments (fresh and marine waters, soil, air)
  • Species (microbes, plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, birds and mammals)
  • Techniques (in silico through to in vitro to in vivo)
  • Scales (micro to catchment to global scales)

Our facilities

As an ECORISC student you'll have access to exceptional shared facilities offered by our core and associated partner institutions including: 

  • state-of-the-art analytical facilities (LC-MS-MS, ORBITRAPrbitrap and Fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance MS, HR-GC-MS, XR-FT-MS, MALDI-MS-TOF, ICP-MS, nanoparticle tracking analysis, µFTIR, RAMAN, radiochemical methods) 
  • genomics research facilities (shot-read Illumina (MiSeq, NextSeq and Novaseq) and long read (Nanopore and Pacbio) platforms)
  • imaging capability (conventional widefield microscopy, confocal-platforms, Zeiss Lightsheet Z.1 system with environmental control, Lattice Selective Plane Illumination Microscopy and RAMAN scattering)
  • unique laboratory testing facilities (including an Aquatic Resources Centre with 14 aquaria rooms housing a wide range of freshwater and marine species)
  • semi field and field testing facilities including the Llyn Brianne Observatory mesocosm facility, the CEH aquatic mesocosm Facility, the Fera e-Flows facility and the River Eden Valley test system)
  • research vessels and contaminant monitoring cruises operated by our partner Cefas.

Our research themes

Individual PhD projects will address one or more of six primary ECORISC research themes, identified as priorities for research in recent horizon scanning exercises and through our interactions with our associated partners in industry, government and third sector organisations.

Detection, fate, transport and uptake of chemicals in the natural environment 

Projects will develop novel sampling and analytical techniques to quantify emerging and novel chemicals in water, soil, sediment and biota and new models for assessing the bioavailability and uptake of chemicals into biota. Compound-specific analytical methods along with untargeted screening approaches will be used to provide an assessment of the full range of chemical stressors present in environmental media. 

Development of mechanistic understanding of the integrative effects of chemicals on individuals

Projects will combine transgenic and epigenomic technologies, in vitro, in vivo testing and the adverse outcome pathway (AOP) approach to develop an understanding of the effects of chemicals at molecular, cellular and tissue levels and how these effects translate to impacts on individual organisms. This will include seeking translation (read-across) from in vitro to in vivo for reducing and avoiding the use of animal models in chemicals testing. 

Extrapolation of effects measured on individuals to impacts on populations and communities and the ecosystem services they provide

Projects will develop and apply ecological understanding and modelling approaches to extrapolate from empirically derived (eg toxicity test) or predicted (eg AOP) individual-level endpoints to potential risk to ecosystem functions and the services they deliver.

This will include developing the mechanistic understanding and modelling approaches required to:

  • extrapolate across levels of biological organisation, extrapolate from tested to untested species and extrapolate from structural to functional endpoints
  • integrate chemical effects on individual species to enable the prediction of their combined effects on community structure, ecological processes and ecosystem services.

Effects of chemical mixtures, including in combination with other environmental stressors

Projects will develop an understanding of the mechanistic basis and long-term effects of mixtures on ecosystems and new modelling frameworks for assessing the risks arising from the combined effects of chemicals and other stressors.

Landscape-scale risk assessment across different spatial and temporal scales

Projects will develop approaches for assessing temporal and spatial variation in the vulnerability of communities within real landscapes to chemicals. Projects will integrate an understanding of the factors and processes that influence the types, concentrations and bioavailability of chemicals in the environment with an understanding of the ecological and ecotoxicological processes that influence the sensitivity and recovery of species and communities exposed to chemicals and other stressors.

A landscape-scale understanding is essential to developing a systems-based approach to chemical assessment and management.

Translation of environmental risk science into practice

Projects will explore how cutting-edge pollution science can be most effectively incorporated into the design, assessment and management of chemical products and will develop new frameworks for chemical prioritisation and risk assessment.


The ECORISC experience

As an ECORISC student you'll embark on a just under four year journey designed to take you from a novice researcher to an effective and influential environmental specialist who has the skills and expertise required to undertake high quality interdisciplinary research necessary to solve real world challenges associated with managing chemical risks.

You'll work on a challenging research project and receive high quality training in environmental pollution science, transferrable and specialist skills. Through the close involvement of our associated partners in the design and delivery of the training programme, year group challenge events, student mentoring and their hosting of secondments and internships you'll gain experience of working in a real world environment.

Core training programme

Over the first two years of your ECORISC PhD programme you'll receive subject-specific training, delivered in collaboration with our partner organisations, in:

  • ecotoxicology
  • environmental chemistry
  • ecology
  • risk assessment
  • core skills required for an environmental specialist.

On successfully completion of the programme you'll secure phase 1 of the SETAC Certified Risk Assessor (CRA) qualification.

Yearly challenge events

One week challenge events held each July will bring each year group together in a residential setting to address real world scenarios linked to chemical risk management and to enhance cohort cohesion. Delivered in collaboration with our associate partner institutions, these challenges will provide an opportunity for you to use knowledge and skills gained during the core training programme and your individual research project. These events will be designed to promote the interdisciplinary thinking and clarity of communication required when applying chemical risk assessment in the real world.

1st Year – Data challenge event

You'll be hosted by associated partners, including the Rivers Trust and Simomics, who have access to substantive ‘data’ sets and data analysis and interpretation platforms. You'll be challenged to analyse and interpret the data to address a real world question and will be introduced to regulatory monitoring data sets, giving you hands on experience in the review and quality assessment of data and of the use of software tools for complex dataset analysis.

2nd Year - Product-based risk assessment

Under the guidance of our business partners such as AstraZeneca, Bayer, Reckitt Benkiser, Syngenta and Shell you'll work in teams to perform an environmental risk assessment of a new to market chemical product. You'll develop and present a short ERA report, which will be scrutinised by our regulatory and third sector partners.

3rd Year - Science to policy event

Our final event will be delivered in collaboration with our policy partners such as Defra and JNCC. You'll take a ‘hot’ environmental topic and through role playing exercises you'll explore how best to translate the underlying science in the area to a policy outcome and communicate that outcome to a non-specialist audience. The challenge will end with a mock House of Commons Environmental Select Committee hearing. 

Secondments and internships

You'll be required to undertake two workplace experiences based with our partner organisations. Internships will be short in duration (two to four weeks) and will give you a taste of what it is like to work in a partner organisation.

During secondments, which will be longer, you'll work on a project defined in consultation with the partner hosting the secondment and your supervisory team.


Core institutions

All ECORISC students will be based at one of the core ECORISC institutions:

  • University of York
  • University of Cardiff
  • University of Exeter
  • Lancaster University
  • The University of Sheffield


Our 28 partners are from research, industry, policy or third sector organisations will provide expertise in developing studentships, supervision, training, impact advisers, and internship opportunities:

Research institutes

  • Cefas
  • Fera

Regulatory and governmental organisations

  • Environment Agency
  • Defra
  • HSE
  • JNCC
  • SEPA
  • Chemical, pharmaceutical and pesticide companies
  • Agilent
  • Astrazeneca
  • Bayer
  • Corteva
  • GSK
  • Reckitt Benkiser
  • Syngenta
  • Shell
  • Water companies
  • South West Water
  • Welsh Water
  • Consultancies
  • CEA
  • Peter Fisk Associates
  • Ramboll
  • WCA 
  • Wood

Contract research organisations

  • Smithers

Software companies

  • Simomics

Third sector organisations

  • Greenpeace
  • Rivers Trust
  • RSPB

Meet the management team

Alistair Boxall (ECORISC Director)  Alistair is based in the Department of Environment and Geography York. Alistair’s research focuses on understanding emerging and future ecological and health risks posed by chemical contaminants in the natural environment.  alistair boxall thumbnail 
Pete Kille (ECORISC Co-Director - Training) 

Pete is based in the School of Biosciences at Cardiff. His research exploits state-of-the-art genomic, proteomic and metabolomic techniques to study the mechanisms by which biological systems handle pollutants.

Lorraine Maltby (ECORISC Co-Director - Research) 

Lorraine is based in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at Sheffield. Her research addresses this challenge and is concerned with understanding the impact of anthropogenic activities on freshwater ecosystems and their catchments.

Andy Sweetman (ECORISC Co-Director - EDNI) 

Andy is based in the Lancaster Environment Centre. His primary research interests involve the investigation the fate and behaviour of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) on UK, European and global scales.

Charles Tyler (ECORISC Co-Director - Cohort 1 lead) 

Charles is based in the School of Biosciences at Exeter. His research spans investigations into the mechanisms of endocrine disrupting chemicals and nanoparticle ecotoxicology to assessing population level effects of environmental contaminants in wildlife, principally fish.

Dave Spurgeon (ECORISC Co-Director - Cohort 1 lead) 

Dave is based at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. He is an ecotoxicological researcher who has worked on assessing the effects of anthropogenic stressors and pollution on soil communities in agricultural, urban and semi-natural and natural ecosystems.


Isabelle Durance (ECORISC Co-Director - Cohort 2 lead)

Isabelle is based in the School of Biosciences at Cardiff. Her current research focuses on the role of river biodiversity in sustaining key ecosystem services, the role of landscape processes in driving freshwater ecosystems, the impact of global changes on freshwater ecosystems.

 Dylan Childs (ECORISC Co-Director - Cohort 2 lead) Dylan is based in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at Sheffield. He follows an interdisciplinary approach, developing data-driven models to understand population dynamics and natural selection in laboratory and free-living animal and plant populations.   
Ceri Lewis (ECORISC Co-Director, Cohort 3 lead)

Ceri is based in the School of Biosciences at Exeter. Her research interests lie in understanding how marine invertebrates adapt and survive in a changing and increasingly polluted marine environment and the potential impacts of environmental change on their physiology and reproduction.


Meet our students

Thilakshani Atugoda

Thilakshani Atugoda

University of Exeter

I hold a B.Sc in Applied Sciences from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka and the Graduateship in Chemistry from Institute of Chemistry Ceylon, Sri Lanka. My research career commenced after obtaining M.Sc in Environmental Science, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka with research expertise on contaminant adsorption on microplastics. Since then, I have been working on microplastics pollution, as a Research Assistant in Ecosphere Resilience Research Center, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka

Project: Microplastics and the water industry: studying source, transfer and fate within the microplastic cycle

More than 90% of microplastics in the waste waters is retained in the biosolids and the routinely application to land, may accumulate in the soil with unknown effects on soil properties and soil inhabiting organisms. This project will work collaboratively with South West Water, to determine whether the presence of microplastics in biosolids that are applied to land is likely to pose a significant risk to the ecosystem or whether they are likely to accumulate in the soil or move into aquatic systems.

 full length image of Imogen Bailes in front of the Lancaster Environment Centre

Imogen Bailes

Lancaster University

I'm Imogen and grew up in Sunderland in the UK. I completed my undergraduate degree in Environmental Geoscience at Durham University, before going on to do an MSc by Research where I used nitrogen isotopes in seaweed to determine sources of nitrogen pollution around the North East coastline and estuaries. I've now moved to Lancaster to do my PhD with the ECORISC CDT. My research interests include environmental chemistry, pollution, and scientific policy. I have taken part in competitive dance for most of my life and love a good walk in the outdoors.

The title of my PhD project is "Understanding exposure of wildlife to persistent chemicals in the UK and the Antarctic".

My project seeks to generate evidence for long-range transport and bioaccumulation of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) by looking for these chemicals in UK and Antarctic wildlife samples. This involves working with my partner organisations, Defra, Cefas and BAS, to identify those chemicals that require more data on their persistence, mobility and biomagnification to inform regulatory decision making; but that are also likely to be found in biota following long-range transport to one of the most remote regions of the planet. I'll conduct targeted analysis on a range of species in different trophic levels, and non-targeted analysis at the highest trophic level to identify new bioaccumulative chemicals.

Imogen Poyntz-Wright

Imogen Poyntz-Wright

University of Exeter

I have recently completed my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter, this summer (2021). During my studies I found my interests lie within the fields of ecotoxicology, marine biology, and ecology. Yet, my interests do span beyond biology, in fact I am a keen artist, drawing and painting in my free time. Along with this, I love exploring new places with an addiction to taking the most perfect photographs.  

My PhD project is assessing responses to chemical exposure in invertebrate and fish populations and biodiversity across diverse UK aquatic environments. I will be identifying which populations of fish and invertebrate species are declining in the UK, determining the role pollution plays in their declines and identifying the most sensitive species to chemical pollution.

Charlotte Robison-Smith

Charlotte Robison-Smith

Cardiff University

Having a marine biology background and passion for kitesurfing, my love for all water critters steered my early research towards animal welfare. Having learnt that freshwater fish are facing higher extinction rates than any other vertebrate group, I am currently studying at Cardiff University to highlight combinations of pollutants/stressors jeopardising freshwater fish welfare and survival.

My thesis is titled 'Hidden costs of environmental pollutants: functional impacts on host-pathogen interactions'. 

Working alongside project partners CEFAS and BAM clothing, the main objectives of this PhD are to; (i) elucidate the 'ecological surprises' arising from multistressor interactions through the application of multidisciplinary techniques, (ii) improve our understanding of the impacts of mulitstressor exposures on fish welfare and disease resistance using the established Guppy-Gyrodactylus host-pathogen system and (iii) compare known anthropogenic toxicants with 'green' alternatives on the market in order to source suitable substitutes and drive for robust industry changes.

Ciara Sanchez Paredes

Ciara Sanchez Paredes

University of York

I studied biology at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (Peru), and my interest as a scientist is understanding how anthropogenic activities impact the ecology, ecotoxicology, behaviour, and conservation physiology of species. My experience involves being an academic affiliate for the Davis Rabosky Lab in the USA and an environmental consultant for mining and construction projects in Peru. My work experience motivated me to obtain my MSc in Environmental science at York and consequently pursue a PhD.

How Second Generation Anticoagulant Rodenticides (SGARs) impact the individual fitness and the population dynamics of the common Kestrel (Falco tunninculus).

The UK population of the common kestrel has been declining since 1990. My project aims to investigate the relationship between temporal and spatial variation in SGARs usage in the UK and population trends of the common kestrel. In addition, I will be doing fieldwork on a nestbox breeding population of common kestrels to test hypotheses regarding the uptake of SGARs by individuals and their reproductive success and survival.

 Eve Tarring

Eve Tarring

Cardiff University

Hello my name is Eve and I am in my first year of the ECORISC CDT. I did an BSc in chemistry at the University of Sheffield before moving to the University of Bristol to do a research masters in the organic geochemistry unit. My project involved looking at the anthropogenic impact of wastewater treatment on dissolved organic matter in freshwater ecosystems using High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry. In my spare time I am a keen baker, birdwatcher and gardener and spend as much time as possible outdoors!

My project is titled “Assessing the risks to freshwater ecosystems from water-soluble polymers (WSPs)”. My project is based in the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University but I will also be working with the Schools of Engineering and Bioscience as well as working with GSK as an industrial partner. I was really attracted to the novelty of the project and the wider implications this study could have on the use of WSPs in everyday products; a relatively overlooked field until now.

Isla Thorpe

University of York

I completed my BSc in Environmental Science (with a Year in Industry) at the University of York. My industry experience focused on assisting in facilitating an environmental monitoring programme.

The title of my PhD project is the ‘Risks of Medicines Used in Companion Animals to Urban Biodiversity'.

Ecotoxicological risks of companion animal medicines have been insufficiently considered in existing regulatory risk assessments due to the assumption of negligible exposure. There is increasing concern regarding the active ingredients used within these products due to their extensive use and potential toxicity to non-target organisms. My project focuses on quantifying the potential risks that these companion animal medicines, in particular parasiticides, may pose to ecosystem health through a combination of monitoring, lab-based experiments and modelling. 

Equality, diversity, and inclusion

Equality, diversity, and inclusion

Equality, diversity, and inclusion is at the heart of the ECORISC CDT and we employ a range of approaches and mechanisms to tackle inequalities in the PGR recruitment, research, and training journey.

For example:

  • CDT opportunities are advertised widely and promoted to a diverse base of talented graduates using language and imagery that is inclusive and screened for unconscious bias using tools such as Textio.
  • We include equality statements in our adverts to encourage students who may otherwise not apply.
  • We run virtual open days to introduce the CDT to potential applicants, explain the application process and answer any questions the students might have.
  • We facilitate flexible working arrangements, including part-time working.
  • We have developed a novel structured and three-stage interview and selection process that aims to evaluate applicants based on competencies and personal attributes as well as academic excellence and which minimises bias.
  • Our recruitment approach aims to increase the focus on motivation and competences and reduce the importance of grades and the university attended. For instance, potential supervisors assess applicants based on anonymised applications and apply a scoring system that emphasises research potential rather than educational privilege.

Contact us

Department of Environment and Geography
University of York
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1903 322999