NERC RED ALERT CDT studentship for 2024 Entry – Development of automated, inline sensors for real-time monitoring of metal pollutants in freshwater environments

University of Exeter

Exeter, UK 🇬🇧

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Alexis Perry, Biosciences, University of Exeter,

Additional Supervisors

Professor Rod Wilson, Biosciences, University of Exeter,

Professor Pedro Estrela, Electronic and Electrical Engineering, University of Bath,

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:

 Currently, quantification of dissolved metal pollutants in watercourses is hugely variable in convenience, speed and data quality. For many metals, accurate results are only achieved by slow and labour-intensive sampling and lab-based analysis. To address this unmet need, this project will develop colourimetric sensing devices that can remain submerged in water and provide frequent, automated measurements of specific metal cation concentrations. Sensors will be based upon lab-synthesised organic molecules that undergo colour change upon exposure to a specific metal, immobilised on a transparent surface to prevent them being washed away, whilst enabling optical measurement to take place to quantify metal concentrations.

This is a multidisciplinary project that will apply synthetic organic chemistry, polymer chemistry, metal coordination chemistry and miniaturised device engineering to construct a sensor device employing spectroscopic analysis. Collaboration and interaction with aquatic ecophysiologists and ecotoxicologists, as well as biosensor researchers and environmental/water organisations and the new Centre for Resilience in Environment, Water and Waste (CREWW; will facilitate application of this technology in environmental monitoring of metal pollution in freshwater environments. However, the foundation of this project is the design, synthesis and evaluation of novel sensor molecules, hence the successful applicant will require expertise in, and enthusiasm for, synthetic organic chemistry.

Project Aims and Methods:

• Design, synthesise and evaluate solution-based, light-reversible colourimetric sensors for environmentally significant metal pollutants.

• Develop methodology for immobilisation of sensor molecules onto a transparent support (e.g., polymer, glass, graphene).

• Fabricate a sensor device incorporating a transparent, metal-responsive surface and a miniaturised UV-vis spectrophotometer.

• Evaluate sensor performance (sensitivity, selectivity, robustness) in model and real freshwater environments

Project partners:

To be confirmed.

Training: This is a highly interdisciplinary project, hence training will encompass: (i) synthetic organic chemistry, including analytical techniques such as NMR, MS and IR, and polymer synthesis and characterisation; (ii) sensor design, evaluation (using UV-vis spectroscopy) and application; (iii) device fabrication; (iv) sensor application and testing in freshwater environments.

Background reading and references

A. Perry, S. J. Green, D. W. Horsell, S. M. Hornett, M. E. Wood, A pyrene-appended spiropyran for selective photo-switchable binding of Zn(II): UV–visible and fluorescence spectroscopy studies of binding and non-covalent attachment to graphene, graphene oxide and carbon nanotubes, Tetrahedron, 2005, 71, 6776-6783.

R. Klajn, Spiropyran-based dynamic materials, Chem. Soc. Rev., 2014, 43, 148-184.

Useful Links

Dr Alexis Perry website:

Prof. Rod Wilson website:

Prof. Pedro Estrela website:

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


A degree in Chemistry, or a degree in a related subject with considerable Chemistry content.

Evidence of aptitude and enthusiasm for organic synthesis.

Experience of organic chemistry research in a research lab environment.

Either evidence of a multidisciplinary background and mindset; or a willingness to embrace cross-discipline research and an ability to develop skills in unfamiliar research areas.

Effective written and oral scientific communication skills, appropriate both to specialist and non-specialist audiences, and in both formal and informal settings.

Imaginative and innovative approach to research.

Ability to conduct lab-based research confidently, safely (with adherence to current health and safety legislation), and with growing independence and astute time management.

Able to build contacts and participate in internal and external networks for the exchange of information and collaboration.


Experience in the following areas of chemistry: sensors, photoswitches, metal coordination chemistry, binding studies, analytical chemistry (especially involving UV-vis spectroscopy), polymer chemistry.

Experience in fabrication and/or application of small-scale analytical devices.

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 5058 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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