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PhD Studentships in Environmental Pollution Science

The ECORISC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) has funding available for up to 14 PhD studentships to work on one of 21 PhD projects across the different ECORISC institutions to better understand the risks of chemicals in the natural environment and how to best assess and manage these risks.

You'll embark on an exciting and unique 46 month programme of training and research designed to deliver a new generation of environmental scientists who have the knowledge and skills to deliver a step-change in how the environmental risks of chemicals are developed, assessed and monitored so that the benefits of chemicals can be realised with minimal negative environmental consequences.

Funding: Tuition fees at UK rate and stipend (currently £17,668 a year)

Academic year: 2023/24

Open to: EU, International (non-EU) and UK (home) students

Qualification level: Postgraduate research

Number available: 14

The application window for 2023/24 has now closed.

A unique training experience

Alongside the research project you'll receive a unique and world-class training in pollution science and transferrable skills.

Over the first two years of your PhD programme you'll receive subject-specific training in:

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

The formal training programme will be complemented by yearly residential challenge events and tailored specialist skills training.

Experience of working in the real world

You'll be required to undertake two workplace experiences based with our business, policy and regulation, third sector and research organisation partners. 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. Secondments will be longer and will allow you to work with a partner organisation on a short project to address a real world problem.


  • Open to EU, International (non-EU) and UK (home) students.
  • Open to students in the Department of Environment and Geography.
  • You should have a 2:1 or higher Bachelors degree with a passion for environmental pollution science and an urge to make a difference.

Inclusivity is at the heart of the ECORISC programme. We strongly encourage applications from under-represented groups and are employing a number of mechanisms, such as the possibility of part-time working, to ensure the programme is open to all.

If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact us.

How to apply

Application deadline: Friday 9 December, 5pm GMT

Apply now

This application is for the studentship known as an 'Offer of Funding'. You may also need to apply for admission, known as an 'Offer to Study', from your chosen university or universities by completing their institutional application process.

Open Afternoon

Open Afternoon

The ECORISC open afternoon will provide an overview of the research and training activities of the CDT and of the process for applying for one of the PhD projects that are available for 2023.

  • Learn from current students what it is like to do a PhD in the ecological risk assessment of chemicals area and why they chose the ECORISC programme.
  • Hear from some of our partner organisations from the business, policy and NGO sectors about the potential career avenues for graduates from the programme.
  • Ask any questions you have on ECORISC and becoming one of our students.

This event will take place online from 2pm to 4pm (GMT) on Wednesday 16 November 2022.

Register now to learn more about this exciting opportunity

How we allocate places

Within equal opportunities principles and regulations, applications will be assessed in the light of your ability to meet the required criteria and you'll be evaluated by application and by interview performance.

If successful in your initial application you will be provided with an opportunity to meet with project supervisory teams and then be invited to submit a project-specific application form. We will use your answers to this to shortlist candidates for interview.

We will longlist candidates on the basis of their application form against the following criteria:

  • Proven academic quality: normally evidenced by an excellent performance at Bachelors or Masters level, but may also be demonstrated by a record of relevant professional practice.
  • Research potential: evidenced through application responses and supported by performance in research projects at Bachelors or Masters level, or another form of dedicated preparation for research.
  • Personal motivation and commitment: evidenced through application responses, by enthusiasm for the project area, and in relation to career goals.

PhD project research themes

You will engage in a programme of research aligned with one or more of the six research themes of the CDT:

1. Detection, fate, transport and uptake of chemicals in the environment

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

3. Extrapolation of effects on individuals to effects on populations, communities and the ecosystem services that they provide

4. Effects of chemical mixtures, including effects in combination with non-chemical stressors

5. Landscape scale risk assessment across different spatial and temporal scales

6. Translation of environmental risk science into practice

All PhD projects will be co-supervised by two of the core ECORISC institutions and one of our 30 partners from the business, governmental and third sectors.

Available projects

Our chemical future: a case study of circularity in the wastewater system

Project outline

It is rare for chemical pollution and climate change targets to be considered together, but vital if global net zero targets are to be realistically achieved. The recycling of resources back to the soil is an important route for returning nutrients to the soil, but needs to be balanced to prevent recycling of chemical risk. This project sets out to achieve this in a systematic manner, by studying the ecotoxicology of chemical pollutants in wastewater with an assessment of their contribution to carbon cycling through the application of biosolids to land.

You will gain a portfolio of highly employable skills including laboratory methods for analysing and deducing the biological impacts of pollution in the context of climate change, and for determining the success of wastewater interventions designed to reduce pollution. You will gain in depth knowledge of how to bring cutting edge research evidence into local environmental management, with close involvement of the water industry partner.

Supervisor: Professor Tamara Galloway

Host organisation: University of Exeter

Partner organisation: South West Water

Towards design of chemical resilient agricultural landscapes

Project outline

UK biodiversity is under threat, the abundance of terrestrial and freshwater species has declined by 13% since 1970 and 15% of species are threatened with extinction. As 71% of UK land is used for agriculture, any effort to halt UK biodiversity decline must consider how agricultural landscapes are managed. This CASE PhD project will address the twin challenge of maintaining UK food production to meet demands for national food security whilst also delivering on the UK’s commitment to halt biodiversity loss by 2030.

To do this, the research will involve visioning of alternative futures for agricultural landscapes; this may range from relatively simple management features, to habitat creation, alternative cropping systems, and the role of innovative food production systems such as regenerative agriculture and urban agriculture. The project will evaluate impacts of chemicals and other stressors on biodiversity and delivery of other ecosystem services under baseline (current) conditions, and then compare these with landscape-level delivery under the alternative future scenarios. The project will test the hypothesis that landscape design can concurrently reduce environmental risks from chemicals (eg pesticides) and other stressors whilst maintaining food productivity at (or beyond) current levels and enhancing biodiversity.

You will develop skills in understanding and managing the processes operating in agricultural landscapes. This will include landscape ecology, chemical exposure science, risk mitigation, biodiversity assessment and agronomy/food production systems. There will be a strong component of training in spatial analysis and strong linkages to environmental policy throughout the project.

Supervisor: Professor Colin Brown

Host organisation: University of York

Partner organisation: Syngenta; Healthy and Safety Executive (Chemicals Regulation Division)

Implications of agriculture derived pollution in soil biodiversity

Project outline

This project is at the intersection of ecotoxicology, biodiversity and agriculture. The project’s novelty is the application of state of the art ecotoxicology methods and genomics to understand the impact and implications of agriculture derived pollution in soil biodiversity.

To achieve this the student will carry out field work in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) where soil samples will be collected across oil palm plantations and tropical forest to:

i) characterise the presence and spatial distribution of polluting chemicals derived from agricultural practices.

ii) characterise the soil diversity using metagenomic approaches.

iii) link the outcomes of (i) and (ii) with oil palm productivity.

The student will develop skills in 1) tropical field work (field; Cardiff University’s Danau Girang Field Centre in Borneo), 2) ecotoxicology (field and lab; Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), 3) phylogenetics (lab; Cardiff University), 4) statistics and bioinformatics (all supervisors), and other relevant and transferable skills (eg risk assessment, time management) offered by the ECORISK CDT and by Cardiff University’s Doctoral Academy.

Supervisor: Dr Pablo Orozco-terWengel

Host organisation: Cardiff University

Partner organisation: Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)

Impacts of climate-driven changes in fish distributions on contaminants exposure and accumulation in marine food webs

Project outline

Impacts of climate-driven changes in fish distributions on contaminants exposure and accumulation in marine food webs.

Marine fish play a vital role in marine food webs, as they are food to iconic top predators such as marine mammals and seabirds. They are also exposed to a wide range of contaminants, and may accumulate these and transfer them to their predators. This project will investigate how the relative risk of exposure to contaminants varies between fish species, how this risk will change as fish species distributions track our changing climate and as fish communities are reorganised what the implications of this are for the wider marine food web, ecosystem functions and services.

In a novel collaboration between marine macroecology and ecotoxicology, the project will involve analysis of existing big biological and chemical data using a range of computational techniques, for example, meta-analysis, systematic reviews of existing data, modelling, and ecoinformatics. The focus will initially be on the North Sea, which is characterised by multiple human pressures, including chemical contaminants and rapid warming, but which also supplies important ecosystem services, many of them mediated through its fish communities. The North Sea is also among the most well-monitored and data-rich marine ecosystems in the world, and the increasing open availability of biological, chemical, and climate data products produced by national and European initiatives make the big data approaches that are central to this project extremely timely.

The student will receive training and gain expertise in: 

  1. The macroecology of marine fish, including their role in marine food webs, their responses to environmental change, and their risk of exposure to contaminants.
  2. Working with big biological, environmental and chemical data, in particular data processing, visualisation, and analysis in the statistical computing environment.
  3. Ecotoxicology in marine environments in a risk-assessment framework,
  4. The translation of research into management and policy.

Supervisor: Dr Tom Webb

Host organisation: University of Sheffield

Partner organisation: Cefas

Impact of toxic metal contamination on freshwater snails using an ecogenomics approach: lessons for future mitigation of freshwater resources

Project outline

This multidisciplinary project will investigate the effects of toxic metal contamination in freshwater ecosystems in South Africa and will provide essential data on downstream freshwater pollution for future mitigation measures. The project will utilise a series of chemical analyses, ecological experiments under laboratory conditions, statistical/geographic information system (GIS) analyses, and molecular methods (DNA barcoding, whole genome sequencing.)

These approaches will be used in combination to validate the use of freshwater snails as bioindicator species in ecological monitoring to access environmental health and the biogeographic changes that are taking place in the environment. Investigating snail genomes at the DNA methylome level will contribute to the understanding of the transcriptional and regulatory potential of genomic DNA.

The student will develop strong field techniques and analytical skills with a focus on epigenetics and the associated bioinformatics. The student will become an expert in molecular laboratory skills and toxicity experimental design. All are fields at the cutting edge of ecotoxicological research. A policy placement will provide the student with the ability to apply their scientific understanding.

Supervisor: Dr Isa-Rita Russo

Host organisation: Cardiff University

Partner organisation: Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)

Formula vs function: Understanding how different formulations of plant protection products impact toxicity

Project outline

Plant protection products (PPP) containing the same active substance can take many different forms, for example emulsifiable concentrate, wettable powder, suspension concentrate. Regulatory data on every formulation is required before a PPP can be authorised. This project aims to determine when, or even if, so many studies are required, or whether the toxicity of the PPP can be predicted on the basis of the toxicity of the active substance and the formulation type.

You will develop expertise in performing industry standard aquatic and soil invertebrate and plant ecotoxicology tests, soil and water analysis for organic compounds, fate and behaviour modelling and the risk assessment process within the regulatory environment.

Supervisor: Professor Mark Hodson, Dr Brett Sallach and Dr Andrew Sweetman

Host organisation: University of York, Department of Environment and Geography

Partner organisations: Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Syngenta

Effects of neuroactive chemicals on freshwater ecosystems

Project outline

Although we know neuroactive chemicals are pervasive in the environment, it is a major challenge to understand their effects beyond those at the level of the individual organism. Understanding the effects of neuroactive chemicals at the ecosystem scale, however, is crucial for the protection of freshwater systems and their ecological services. Part of the challenge is the complexity – with many interacting chemicals and organisms, it is difficult to track and monitor ecological effects. This is where complexity science, specifically network ecology, offers a range of theories, concepts and tools that can applied to this field of research.

This studentship will address two main questions:

  • How do neuroactive chemicals affect ecological networks at different scales (individuals, populations, communities, ecosystems)?
  • Do changes in the structure of ecological networks result in alterations in ecosystem function?

Experiments, field studies and ecosystem modelling will focus on understanding how exposure affects ecological interactions at cellular to ecosystem scales – providing evidence to improve monitoring and regulation of neuroactive chemicals. There will be a natural progression through the levels of ecological complexity, investigating the effects of neuroactive chemicals on: (i) physiology of individuals (eg brain function); (ii) intra-specific interactions (ie social and behavioural networks in Danio rerio); (iii) inter-specific interactions (eg resource competition, parasitism and predation); (iv) merged networks (eg multiple types of mutualistic and antagonistic interactions.)

The student will be part of thriving research communities across partnering institutions specialising in ecotoxicology and ecology. Multi-disciplinary training, working closely with regulators and policy advisors, developing science communication and engagement, and translating project outcomes into societal benefits, are core components. The student will gain expertise in ecotoxicology, ecology, network science and mathematical modelling. With close support from stakeholder partners, they will also develop an understanding of environmental monitoring, risk assessment and policy. To support the student the team will provide access to existing data, collaborative research networks in conservation and environmental management, world-leading laboratory infrastructure and training opportunities through Cardiff/Exeter and their existing NERC and BBSRC training programmes.

The project will generate some of the first policy-relevant data and knowledge on the effects and risks of neuroactive chemicals on freshwater ecosystems. By combining empirical and in silico approaches we will be able to predict risk more accurately across freshwater ecosystems and more effectively target environmental protection. Findings from the research will directly contribute UK and international commitments, such as the UK’s 25-year Environment Plan.

Supervisor: Dr Fredric Windsor

Host organisation: Cardiff University

Partner organisations: Welsh Water and The CHEM Trust

Can antibiotics disrupt biogeochemical nitrogen cycling in the coastal ocean?

Project outline

Marine environments are under growing pressure from antibiotics which can inhibit all or only selected microorganisms catalysing processes in the natural nitrogen cycle. Understanding the impact of antibiotics on these ecosystem services is essential for effective regulation of pollutants and protection of ecosystem health and water quality. You will develop a novel conceptual framework for disturbances to the marine nitrogen cycle due to antibiotics in combination with other stressors related to eutrophication and climate change.

Marine fieldwork is supported by the CASE partner Cefas on board R/V Cefas Endeavour and there is potential for international fieldwork, including the polar regions. As part of a highly interdisciplinary team you will use eDNA and -omics approaches to identify shifts in the microbial community, as well as geochemical and stable isotope analyses to investigate associated changes to key nitrogen transformations over time on an ecosystem scale.

We will consider applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds, eg environmental sciences, oceanography, chemistry, biology, etc. If you have any questions about the project please contact Dr Imke Grefe -

Supervisor: Dr Imke Grefe

Host organisation: Lancaster University

Partner organisations: Cefas

Re-defining the fates and toxicity profile of metal contaminants by organelle-specific correlative microscopy and spectroscopy

Project Outline

The UK has a large number of metal-contaminated sites that are a legacy of its industrial past. Determining the risks that these sites pose to ecosystems requires an understanding of how metals accumulate in soil organisms. Traditionally this has been done by measuring the bulk concentration of metals present in soils and biota. However, this misses crucial details about the specific form and location of metals in organisms. State of the art technology now allows the assessment of the precise form and location of metals within the internal structures of organisms.

This PhD project will develop and utilise a novel correlative micro-spectroscopic approach to access the risks of metal contamination to earthworms and nematodes. It will involve laboratory studies at the new UK Centre for Multimodal Correlative Microscopy and Spectroscopy (CoreMiS) at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) with complementary studies at the Diamond Light Source UK and fieldwork at some metal contaminated sites. The fieldwork will include field monitoring of earthworm/nematode numbers in contaminated sites and evaluation of the spatial multi-metal distribution and chemical speciation within their biomass.

Overall, the project will help reveal the dynamic biochemical processes that determine the handling and sub-lethal effects of metals in organisms, allowing the understanding of how internal chemical speciation affects metal toxicity and bioaccumulation in food chains.

The student will receive training in advanced micro-spectroscopy involving the use of Scanning electron microscopy, Raman imaging spectroscopy, Energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and Synchrotron X-ray atomic absorption microscopy and spectroscopy. These skills are crucial in developing modern approaches for studying cellular levels of impacts of metals in organisms.

This project is suited for a student with a background in Biology, Biochemistry, Environmental chemistry or a related subject.

Supervisor: Dr Gbotemi Adediran

Host organisation: UK CEH (Wallingford), to be registered/awarded at the University of York, UK

Partner organisation: Natural England

Call of nature: How do livestock veterinary drugs impact dung beetles and other macroinvertebrates, their microbiota and associated ecosystem services?

Project outline

The activities of dung beetles and other soil macroinvertebrates support the maintenance of healthy soils by facilitating the breakdown of dung through combined direct consumption and facilitated microbial community action, but livestock veterinary drugs such as avermectins and antibiotics threaten such ecosystem services. Although avermectins (wormers) and antibiotics are both routinely administered to livestock and may be present in dung at the same time the combinational impacts (negative or positive) of these veterinary drugs on dung beetle behaviour, reproduction, soil fauna-microbiome interactions, and associated ecosystem level consequences are likely to be substantive but have not been studied before.

This project aims to address these issues to provide a better understanding of the processes involved which may help improve food security and mitigate against antibiotic resistance, biodiversity loss and climate change in agricultural environments.

We are seeking a dynamic and enthusiastic student with strong quantitative skills and interests in ecology/ecotoxicology/behaviour/microbiology/entomology/molecular biology or combinations thereof to work on our project addressing the impacts of veterinary drugs on soil and dung macroinvertebrates in agricultural environments.    

You will develop skills in experimental design and bioassay studies of toxicity and behaviour, advanced statistical analysis (eg linear mixed models and Bayesian statistics), microbiology, bioinformatics and molecular ecology (including preparation of next generation sequencing libraries) and mathematical modelling. You will work in both the lab and field on this project.

You will be based at the University of Exeter in Penryn, Cornwall, one of the highest ranked Universities in the world for ecology (according to the Shanghai rankings), supervised by Dr Nick RoyleDr Xavier Harrison and Dr Mario Recker. You will also spend time with Professor Dave Spurgeon at UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) Wallingford, with access to specialized mesocosms and labs for terrestrial ecotoxicology, and with conservation scientists and farm managers at the RSPB under the supervision of Dr Gillian Gilbert.

Supervisor: Dr Nick Royle

Host organisation: University of Exeter (Cornwall campus)

Partner organisation: RSPB

Advancing into a new age of monitoring aquatic pollution: Novel methods and citizen science

Project outline

Chemical contaminants in surface water (eg pharmaceuticals, metals, pesticides) can affect the biology of organisms via interaction with highly conserved molecular receptors. However, despite over 20 years of research, we still significantly lack the data needed to understand their environmental distribution. The development of a simple, citizen-led methodology to collect samples for analysis at a centralised lab could offer a real-world solution to this challenge. Therefore, this project aims to streamline sample collection methodologies and develop novel analytical techniques (eg chemical sensors) with which citizen scientists can begin to generate large datasets on aquatic chemical pollution across the UK.

Citizen science has never been used to monitor trace-level chemical pollution in water. The project will provide expertise in cutting edge techniques in analytical chemistry, chemical sensors, citizen science as well as in silico environmental data interpretation creating a path towards upscaling and democratising the study of aquatic pollution. Such multimodal approaches present a significant advancement to environmental science.

The successful candidate will be supervised by a leading team of scientists across the University of York, Lancaster University and our partner institution, the Rivers Trust. Based in the Environment and Geography Department (University of York) they will have access to the Centre of Excellence in Mass Spectrometry to develop analytical and environmental chemistry techniques as well as facilities in the School of Engineering at Lancaster University to manufacture and calibrate novel chemical sensors. Working with citizen science experts at the York centre of the global think tank The Stockholm Environment Institute and the Rivers Trust, these tools and techniques will be developed into a unique, simple, and approachable citizen science programme to generate large datasets on aquatic pollution in UK rivers. This project therefore offers the exciting opportunity to create a novel path forward in the way with which both we as scientists and citizens understand our impact on the aquatic environment around us.

Supervisor: Dr John Wilkinson

Host organisation: University of York

Partner organisation: Rivers Trust

Understanding the atmospheric transport and fate of fluorinated Persistent Organic Pollutants with global models

Project outline

The project will provide new and timely insights into the atmospheric production and long-range transport of persistent pollutants. The focus will be on short-chain perfluorocarboxylic acids (PFCAs) – toxic chemicals that are of increasing global environmental concern. The project will evaluate the potential environmental impacts of new ultra-low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants, an emerging source of PFCAs whose emissions are increasing. For the first time, a multi-model approach will be used, allowing uncertainty on estimates of pollutant deposition in remote regions (eg the Arctic) to be quantified.

The student will develop specialist knowledge of the atmospheric chemistry of persistent organic pollutants and of key processes relevant to inform exposure hazards and policy (eg long-range atmospheric transport, deposition.) They will obtain valuable expertise in atmospheric modelling and in development of chemical mechanisms and emission inventories, along with transferable skills in data acquisition, processing and visualisation. They will gain important experience of the regulatory process through our government partner and will have the opportunity to experience analytical techniques used to monitor PFCA precursors.

The student will join the vibrant atmospheric science and environmental chemistry research groups at Lancaster Environment Centre and benefit from a multidisciplinary supervisory team.

Supervisor: Dr Ryan Hossaini (Lancaster), Professor Oliver Wild (Lancaster), Professor Crispin Halsall (Lancaster), and Professor Lucy Carpenter (York)

Host organisation: Lancaster University

Partner organisation: Defra

Investigating the impacts of novel bioplastics in the marine environment

Project outline

This project will explore the effects of the novel biopolymers derived from organic waste materials on marine ecology and seawater chemistry to address important questions about the sustainability of next generation materials.

You will gain expertise in designing and running detailed ecotoxicological exposure experiments, including marine invertebrate husbandry and maintaining invertebrate larval cultures, gaining skills in a wide range of toxicological and physiological end points. You will also gain expertise in chemical analysis for emerging aquatic contaminants and seawater carbonate chemistry.

Supervisor: Dr Ceri Lewis

Host organisation: University of Exeter

Partner organisation: Defra

Contact details

Department of Environment and Geography
University of York
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0) 1903 322999