PhD: River ecosystem responses to synthetic chemicals under future climate scenarios via FindAPhD

University of Birmingham

Birmingham, UK 🇬🇧

About the Project

River ecosystem are threatened by a cocktail of chemicals produced by human activities. Whilst the ecological impact of some chemicals is understood, the action of new emerging contaminants remains unknown. Poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of highly persistent, synthetic organofluorine compounds that are widely used in commercial products/applications. They are considered “forever” chemicals and are highly mobile and readily transported from the terrestrial environment to groundwater and surface water. Despite growing concern regarding their impact on health, ecotoxicology studies are limited for PFAS and implications of environmentally relevant concentrations for riverine populations, communities and ecosystem function are largely unknown. Furthermore, many river ecosystems are already degraded by excessive water use associated with growing populations, and these be affected further, by widespread shifts in rainfall and temperature patterns under climate change. Hence, it is important that we understand both how PFAS is currently impacting river ecosystems and under plausible future scenarios of environmental change. To do this requires realistic experimental systems (mesocosms – flumes) that can recreate important properties of natural rivers but thermal and flow regimes can be accurately controlled and replicated.

You will join a vibrant research team addressing the research gaps highlighted above, and conduct experiments in a new state of the art mesocosm facility at the University of Birmingham (EcoLaboratory – Outdoor Environmental Change Laboratory; see Fig. 1 below). You will undertake experiments informed by a combination of environmental surveys and historical data from streams monitored by project partner Wessex Water. Specifically, the project will test the effect of PFAS on river ecosystem structure, functioning and food webs. The main objectives will be to: (1) undertake analysis of novel PFAS concentration data collected by Wessex Water, and other water companies, as part of the Chemical Investigation Programme (phase 3 – CIP3); (2) use artificial streams in the Birmingham EcoLaboratory facility to determine the impact of PFAS on invertebrate populations and communities, via factorial manipulation (PFAS concentration, flow and thermal regimes); and (3) assess the impact of environmentally relevant PFAS concentrations (informed by CIP3 data) on food webs and ecosystem function under current and future climate scenarios. The results of the research will reveal how riverine ecosystems are affected by synthetic chemicals and identify how these may change under future climate scenarios, thus providing a basis to inform mitigation strategies. In addition, quantifying ecological impacts of PFAS could have significant long-term financial benefits for the water industry by allowing for more targeted investment.


This project will determine the effect of synthetic chemicals on populations and communities under current and future climate scenarios. Experiments will be conducted in replicate freshwater mesocosms in our new facility at the University of Birmingham (see Fig. 1 above). There will be opportunities to work at different scales (i.e. micro – meso) to assess impacts on 1: key aquatic invertebrate species, 2: community structure and feeding interactions, and; 3: ecosystem functioning. The experiments will be informed by environmental surveys and data collected by Wessex Water (the project partner). This project also benefits from being closely linked with chemists and ecologists at Wessex Water, who seek to better understand chemical impacts on river life in their catchments in southern England. The successful candidate will also gain from being part of a large, interdisciplinary, research team based at the University of Birmingham

 Training and skills:

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.

You will be trained in the use of mesocosms (artificial streams and ponds) for research in hydroecology. A detailed understanding of the taxonomy of freshwater invertebrates and algae will be gained. A good understanding of experimental design, data science and statistical analysis will also be achieved. In addition there will be scope to develop expertise in environmental sensing using the sensor network at the EcoLaboratory facility on the campus at Birmingham. In particular you will use a range of data logging and communication protocols and have scope to develop open source hardware for environmental monitoring.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE):

The project will benefit from a collaboration with our partners Wessex Water and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. You will have access to extensive datasets enabling comparative analysis of chemical impacts on river organisms. Placement opportunities with the CASE partners are also an option.

COVID-19 Resilience of the Project:

The project is resilient to the impacts of COVID-19; experiments are conducted in an open air mesocosm facility which operated without interruption during 2020-21. Data driven aspects of the project are manageable and unlikely to be problematic.

Possible timeline:

Year 1: Review literature, analyse historical data, plan and undertake fieldwork to identify PFAS concentrations in water, sediment and biota. Plan experiments. Opportunity for placement #1 with project partners.

Year 2: Undertake experiments exploring impacts on populations. Establish experiments exploring impact on food webs and ecosystem function. Opportunity for placement #2 with project partners.

Year 3: Complete experiments, all laboratory analysis and data analysis. Thesis write-up with view to publish findings in international peer-reviewed journals.

Please email potential supervisor Dr Khamis ([email protected]) for more information.

Funding Notes

Please apply directly to the University of Birmingham application portal View Website, a completed CENTA application form View Website MUST be an attachment in this application
Successful home-fees-eligible candidates will receive:
• An annual stipend, set at £15,609 for 2021/22, paid in monthly increments
• Full coverage of university fees
• A research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000
• CASE studentships receive an additional RTSG £3500 contribution
Further funding information can be found here: View Website
• International candidates can apply, however please note the number of international fee-waiver opportunities is extremely limited. Please consider this constraint when submitting your application, and ask if you have any questions


Coggan TL, Moodie D, Kolobaric A, Szabo D, Shimeta J, Crosbie ND, Lee E, Fernandes M, Clarke BO. 2019. An investigation into per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in nineteen Australian wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). Heliyon 5 (8): e02316 DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e02316
Li F, Duan J, Tian S, Ji H, Zhu Y, Wei Z, Zhao D. 2020. Short-chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in aquatic systems: Occurrence, impacts and treatment. Chemical Engineering Journal 380: 122506 DOI: 10.1016/j.cej.2019.122506
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Stewart RIA, Dossena M, Bohan DA, Jeppesen E, Kordas RL, Ledger ME, Meerhoff M, Moss B, Mulder C, Shurin JB, et al. 2013. Mesocosm experiments as a tool for ecological climate-change research. Advances in Ecological Research 48, 71– 181.