NERC RED ALERT CDT studentship for 2024 Entry – Assessing Impacts of Combined Sewage Overflows and Surface Water Outfalls on Invertebrate Populations in River Catchments in Southwest England -PhD in Biological Sciences

University of Exeter

Exeter, UK 🇬🇧

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Professor Charles R Tyler, Biosciences, University of Exeter,

Additional Supervisors

Professor Barbara Kaspryzk-Hordern, University of Bath,
Professor Richard Brazier, Geography, University of Exeter,

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

About the Partnership

Natural Environment Research Council funded RED ALERT Centre for Doctoral Training NERC Centre for Doctoral Training in Real-Time Digital Water-Based Systems (RED-ALERT CDT) will provide training in water-based early warning systems for environmental and public health protection focused around 4 UK and 3 international Living Labs aimed to provide the in-depth knowledge and enable a step-change in managing environmental and public health.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Centre for Doctoral Training in Real-Time Digital Water-Based Systems for Environmental Health Protection (RED ALERT CDT).  The NERC RED ALERT CDT consists the University of Bath, Bangor University, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.  RED-ALERT CDT’s vision is to train and empower a new generation of leaders to transform how we manage aquatic   environmental health via Real-Time Digital Water-Based Systems.

For eligible successful applicants, the studentship comprises:

• A stipend for 3.5 years (£19,237 p.a. for 2024-25) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
• Payment of university tuition fee;
• A research budget of £11,000 for conferences, lab, field and research expenses;

Project Background:

    Freshwater systems are  considered to be the most threatened globally and chemical pollution has contributed significantly to freshwater wildlife population declines. It is important to understand  the different pollution sources  and their impact on freshwater biodiversity  so that mitigation strategies can be prioritised for the best wildlife protection. Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO)  have hit the media headlines in recent years  and there is widespread concern about their environmental impacts on freshwater biota however these concerns are largely unquantified.  We recently secured a major grant to better understand the impacts of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) and Surface Water Outfalls (SWO) on riverine biota across catchments in southwest England (rivers Exe, Tamar and Dart) that will support this PhD research project. The PhD will therefore be part of an exciting  large multidisciplinary research project with diverse supporting expertise and industry engagement for enabling real world impact. The PhD will involve a combination of in-field sampling, invertebrate monitoring using both traditional and eDNA methods, chemical bioavailability assessments (for selected chemicals identified in the CSO and SWO discharges through the wider research programme), and risk analyses/modelling using these  data together with wider invertebrate/chemical monitoring  and ecotox  database information. Importantly, the project has great flexibility and the student will get every opportunity to help shape the PhD project to suit their main interests and training preferences.

Project Aims and Methods:

The overall aim of this project is to quantify the impacts of CSO/SWO on invertebrates populations to support freshwater biodiversity protection in rivers in southwest England.  The research project will involve river sampling of benthic macroinvertebrates and water/sediment samples (for eDNA) at points of (chemically-profiled) CSO/SWO discharges into the study rivers, the edge of the mixing zone (established for each specific study site ) and at sites in receiving waters at distances above and below these discharges for multiple seasonal timepoints. eDNA profiling for invertebrate presence at these sites will be conducted on water and sediment samples via DNA sequencing which we run routinely in our laboratories at Exeter. Invertebrate body burdens of selected chemicals identified in the CSO/SWO discharges of potential toxicological concern (e.g. selected metals, pesticides etc.) will be measured via ICP-MS/LC-MS. Modelling work using these data (and wider data sets) will assess the relative risks of CSO and SWO in receiving rivers to invertebrate populations across southwest England considering wider natural variations in the ecology and characteristics of these rivers (which are broadly representative of the range of upland to lowland rivers in the UK). Collectively, this work will inform on the impacts of CSO and SWO discharges on riverine ecology in southwest England  and support Southwest Water in their planning and decision making for investments as well as impacting decision-making more widely across the UK water industry via knowledge exchange from the Centre for Resilience in Environment, Water and Waste.

Project partners:

Southwest Water (Paul McNie,

Southwest Water are providing almost half the project costs for this PhD and will dedicate staff time commitments to support the student training , data provision, and equipment access.

Training: The successful student will get  an exceptional  training and support in the areas of  ecotoxicology, ecology, molecular biology, analytical chemistry, environmental monitoring, GIS, and statistical modelling and, in a direct partnership  with the water industry, translating their science into real world practice. The student will also benefit from considerable supporting/training resources brought to this project through the well-established supervisory teams and major lab infrastructures as well as highly interdisciplinary working  environments and extensive (inter) national collaborations. They will also have the opportunity for attending conferences in the UK and overseas.

Background reading and references

Alice Botturi, E. Gozde Ozbayram, Katharina Tondera, Nathalie I. Gilbert, Pascale Rouault, Nicolas Caradot, Oriol Gutierrez, Saba Daneshgar, Nicola Frison, Çağrı Akyol, Alessia Foglia, Anna Laura Eusebi & Francesco Fatone (2020) Combined sewer overflows: A critical review on best practice and innovative solutions to mitigate impacts on environment and human health. Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology, Volume 51, 2021 – Issue 15

João Paulo Silva Pinheiro, Fredric M. Windsor, Rod W. Wilson, Charles R. Tyler (2021). Global variation in freshwater physico-chemistry and how this affects  toxicity of chemicals to aquatic wildlife. Biological Reviews 96, pp. 1528–1546. 1528 doi: 10.1111/brv.12711

Imogen Poyntz-Wright,, Xavier A. Harrison, Andrew Johnson, Susan Zappala and Charles R. Tyler (2023) Pesticide pollution associations with riverine invertebrate communities in England. Science of the Total Environment   10:903:166519. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.166519.Epub 2023 Aug 26

Windsor, F.M., Ormerod, S.J., Tyler, C.R. (2018). Endocrine disruption in aquatic systems: up-scaling research to address ecological consequences. Biol. Rev. Camb. Philos. Soc., (93): 626-641

Useful Links

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via:

Prospective applicants: For information about the application process please contact the Admissions team via  Each project advertisement has an ‘Apply Now’ button linking to an application portal. Please note that applications received via other routes including a standard programme application route will not be considered for the studentship funding.

Funding Eligibility

NERC RED ALERT CDT 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. 

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 RED ALERT CDT full studentship starting in 2024 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.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

The University of Exeter is committed to promoting and supporting equality, diversity, and inclusion within our working environments and is at the heart of all our activities.  With over 27,000 students and 6,400 staff from 180 different countries we offer a diverse and engaging environment where our diversity is celebrated and valued as a major strength.

We actively encourage applicants with varied experiences and backgrounds and from all sections of the community regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, or disability status.  We are committed to creating an inclusive culture where all members of our community are supported to thrive.
Whilst all applicants will be judged on merit alone, we particularly welcome applications from groups currently underrepresented within our postgraduate research student community.  Reasonable adjustments are available for interviews and workspaces.

Entry requirements

Essential: A biological/relevant degree and a passion for research and the environment.

Desired: Some knowledge of, and ideally experience of working with, invertebrates and/or molecular biology and /or analytical chemistry. Some field experience would be an advantage.

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

To apply for this studentship you must apply via the ‘apply now’ button provided above. 

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
• Personal Statement
• 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, 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.

General information

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

The closing date for applications is 2359 hours GMT Thursday 14 March 2024.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Please quote reference number 5055 in correspondence.

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:14th March 2024
Value:£19,237 per annum
Duration of award:Not applicable
Contact: Postgraduate Research Admissions





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