Does antimicrobial resistance in river water pose a risk to human health?, NERC GW4+ DTP CASE studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Medicine Ref: 4263

University of Exeter

Exeter, UK 🇬🇧

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Anne Leonard, University of Exeter Medical School

Additional Supervisors

Prof William Gaze, University of Exeter Medical School.

Prof Ruth Garside, University of Exeter Medical School

Dr Andrew Singer, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Dr Nicola Elviss, UK Health Security Agency (CASE Partner)

Location: Truro Campus, University of Exeter, Cornwall.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,  the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,609 p.a. for 2021/22) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses

Project details

Project Background

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when microorganisms adapt, such that they no longer respond to antimicrobial drugs, making infections harder to treat. This has significant implications for healthcare and society. Recent evidence indicates that non-human reservoirs are important sources of AMR in the general population 1. Surface waters, especially rivers, receive pollution from various sources, and bathers can come into close contact with water-borne microbes. Previous work in coastal waters found that bathing in coastal waters is associated with an increased risk of exposure to and colonisation by AMR bacteria 2. This research project is very timely as freshwater swimming increases in popularity, and rivers are being considered for bathing status. However, the threat that AMR in river water poses to bathers’ and public health is poorly characterised. Work by members of the supervisory team has informed the latest UK Government’s 5 year plan to tackle antimicrobial resistance (2019-2024), as well as the WHO’s review of bathing waters. Thus, the results of this proposed PhD project will have global significance in terms of understanding the sources and effects of pollution in rivers on human health and can help inform discussions on land and water management at regional and national levels through engagement with the Environment Agency and the UK Health Security Agency (formerly Public Health England).  

Project Aims and Methods

This interdisciplinary project evaluates the threat that AMR in river water poses to human health. We anticipate that this will be achieved through: A systematic review on the effects of bathing in river water on human health; A microbiological study of a UK rivers to understand the important sources of AMR, and effects on bathers’ exposure; An epidemiological study to investigate the link between swimming in river water and health outcomes of public health significance. There will be scope for the student to be innovative in their approach to conducting these research projects. 

Candidate requirements

Strong statistical and numeracy skills are required. Experience of conducting research involving human subjects, as well as lab work, and data analysis skills are desirable but not essential, as training will be provided. The student may be required to undertake field work and lab work. 

Project partners 

This project involves an exciting collaboration between the University of Exeter, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK CEH), and the UK Health Security Agency (formerly Public Health England (PHE), with support from the Environment Agency (EA). The student will be based at the University of Exeter with access to state-of-the-art laboratory and computing facilities and a vibrant, interdisciplinary community of researchers. Partners at UK CEH and EA contribute experience in understanding the ecology of freshwater systems. There may be chances for the student to develop their skills while on placement at the UK Health Security Agency.

Background reading and references

1) Mughini-Gras et al. 2019 Attributable sources of community-acquired carriage of Escherichia coli containing β-lactam antibiotic resistance genes: a population-based modelling study; 2) Leonard et al 2018 Exposure to and colonisation by antibiotic-resistant E. coli in UK coastal water users: Environmental surveillance, exposure assessment, and epidemiological study (Beach Bum Survey);

Useful links

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via Anne Leonard ([email protected])


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.  For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2022 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). 

International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in.

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.

Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project

How to apply

Apply now

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English, please see the entry requirements for details.
  • Two references

Reference information
You will be asked to submit two references as part of the application process.  If you are not able to upload  your reference documents with your application please ensure you provide details of your referees.  If you provide contact details of referees only, we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the [email protected], 7 days prior to the interview dates. Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is 1600 hours GMT Friday 10 January 2022. Interviews will be held between 28 February and 4 March 2022.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email [email protected]  Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:10th January 2022
Value:£15,609 per annum for 2021-2022
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries[email protected]