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PhD Studentships 2017


The School is pleased to welcome applications for PhD studentship(s) as follows:

  1. Mechanisms of weed seed persistence and development of novel weed management tools (Professor Gerhard Leubner)

  2. Development of integrated pest management in sports turf: novel approaches using seaweed products (Professor Alan Gange)

       3.    A physiological and molecular analysis of the RHS rosemary collection - understanding                   and improving volatile synthesis (Dr Paul Devlin)

Closing date for the projects 1 and 2 is midnight on 30th June 2017
Closing date for proejct 3 is 19th June 2017

For further details of the project including funding and closing dates, please see the 'project descriptions and supervisor information' below. 


Candidates should hold, or be expecting to gain by July, a 1st class or 2.1 BSc degree, or an MSc, in a suitable biological subject. All current projects are open to home and EU students only.


How to apply

  • Download and complete the studentship Pre-assessment form available here

  • Email the completed pre-assessment form to SBSstudentships@royalholloway.ac.uk together with

           a) an up to date CV

           b) copies of any relevant academic transcripts

  • Arrange for two referees to send a reference (in any format) direct to SBSstudentships@royalholloway.ac.uk before midnight on the closing date. Ask them to Include your name in the subject field of the email.

Clearly state the name of the supervisor and project you are applying for in any communication.

Please do not send your pre-assessment papers to the project supervisor or through the College online application portal. No other papers, documents or forms are required or will be considered at this stage.

Applicant details will be made available to Royal Holloway staff and any interested parties such as collaborators and funding bodies.

Project descriptions and supervisor information

 1. Mechanisms of weed seed persistence and development of novel weed management tools

Supervisor: Professor Gerhard Leubner

Email: gerhard.leubner@royalholloway.ac.uk

Co-supervisors: Dr David Stock, Syngenta Jealott's Hill International Research Centre, UK

Project description
Weeds owe their success, at least in part, to seed dormancy and longevity as early-life history adaptation mechanisms. The overall aim of this project is to gain a deeper understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of weed seed adaptation to changing ambient temperatures. Weeds and heat stress are major threats to agriculture and food security; about 10 per cent of crop production is currently lost to weeds. Without herbicides these losses would be about 50 per cent. The objectives and deliverables of this project are achieved in a collaboration between the Seed Biology and Engineering Group of ProfessorG Leubner at Royal Holloway, University of London  and Syngenta’s Weed Control Research led by Dr David Stock at Jealott's Hill International Research Centre (JHIRC, Bracknell, UK). We will conduct seed dormancy, germination, and longevity modelling of responses with the focus on noxious weeds from the Amaranthaceae family. This will be at different temperatures and upon chemical manipulation to deliver the quantitative physiological framework for the subsequent comparative hormone and transcriptome profiling to elucidate the underpinning molecular mechanisms. From the comparative transcriptomics we will select differentially expressed genes and derive candidates for conserved and seed-specific target mechanisms. Using identified suitable targets genes we will develop antisense oligionucleotides and identify chemicals to specifically develop novel agri-technologies for weed seed and seedling control. This project and collaboration with Syngenta builds on our strengths to enhance the bioeconomy by providing innovative agri-technologies and by providing training and developing skills relevant to the agricultural industry.

The sustainable intensification of food production ("Reaping the benefits", The Royal Society policy doc. 11/2009) necessary to feed the world’s growing population will only be achievable if crop harvest losses due to heat stress and due to competition with weeds can be minimised. New weed control tools are urgently required and especially in the UK where crop production levels and regulations have caused a shrinkage in our 'crop protection toolbox' ("Healthy Harvest" initiative, UK National Farmers Union). The problem of effective weed control is most severe in annual field crop systems and with annual weeds which emerge at the same time as the crop seedlings. 

Professor Gerhard Leubner, Chair of Plant Biochemistry at Royal Holloway, leads the Group for Seed Biology and Engineering (www.seedbiology.eu) which is targeting plant seeds as the delivery systems of scientific advance and novel agri-technologies to agriculture. His large team with experts from molecular biology to seed technology and biomaterial engineering has a long-standing track record in innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to crop and weed seed research. They have established a broad collaboration and networking base with leading seed/molecular scientists, ecologists, material scientists and industrial partners. Together with the excellent working environment/equipment of the lab, this will provide significant synergy to the project, will offer plenty of opportunities for training and skill development, as well as exposure to industry of the student. This includes through the associated BBSRC LINK project "Chemical manipulation and mechanisms of weed seed persistence, dormancy release and germination" in collaboration with Syngenta. Dr David Stock is a Syngenta Fellow and Head of Weed Control Research Biology at Syngenta's Jealott's Hill International Research Centre (ca. 30 mins drive from Royal Holloway). Her is responsible for Weed Control Biology Research, from New Active Ingredients through to Development and Life Cycle Management. He is experienced in co-supervising students and in providing placements at Syngenta’s JHIRC. 

CASE Collaborative/Industrial Placement: The three-month CASE (Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering) placement will be at Syngenta’s Weed Control Biology Research at JHIRC. The placement will provide experience and training in applied research and methods relevant to the project’s topic. The timing of this is flexible and will be either one or two blocks placed strategically in the initial and the middle phase of the PhD project.
Priority Area:  Agriculture and Food Security, Collaborating with the UK’s Industry


The Seed Biology Place – www.seedbiology.eu

• Lenser T, Graeber K, Cevik ÖS, Adigüzel N, Dönmez AA, Grosche C, Kettermann M, Mayland-Quellhorst S, Mérai Z, Mohammadin S, Nguyen T-P, Rümpler F, Schulze C, Sperber K, Steinbrecher T, Wiegand N, Strnad M, Mittelsten Scheid O, Rensing SA, Schranz ME, Theißen G, Mummenhoff K, Leubner-Metzger G (2016). Developmental control and plasticity of fruit and seed dimorphism in Aethionema arabicum. Plant Physiology 172:1691-1707

• Graeber K, Linkies A, Steinbrecher T, Mummenhoff K, Tarkowská D, Turečková V, Ignatz M, Sperber K, Voegele A, de Jong H, Urbanová T, Strnad T, Leubner-Metzger G (2014). DELAY OF GERMINATION 1 mediates a conserved coat-dormancy mechanism for the temperature- and gibberellin-dependent control of seed germination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA  111(34): E3571–E3580

• Voegele A, Graeber K, Oracz K, Tarkowská D, Jacquemoud D, Turecková V, Urbanová D, Strnad M, Leubner-Metzger G (2012) Embryo growth, testa permeability, and endosperm weakening are major targets for the environmentally regulated inhibition of Lepidium sativum seed germination by myrigalone A. Journal of Experimental Botany  63: 5337-5350

• Finch-Savage WE, Leubner-Metzger G (2006). Seed dormancy and the control of germination.
Tansley review: New Phytologist  171:501-523

Research Pages: http://www.seedbiology.eu

Four years

Closing date for applications is midnight on Friday 30th June 2017

2. Development of integrated pest management in sports turf: novel approaches using seaweed products

Supervisor: Professor Alan Gange

Email: a.gange@royalholloway.ac.uk

Project description

Our challenge is the need to produce year-round, consistent, high quality grass playing surfaces for sport, in the face of increasing pest and disease attack, the removal of pesticide approvals and the development of pesticide resistance.

Currently, the production of high-value sports turf is reliant on managing a balance of water, with high fertiliser and pesticide inputs. This is a year-round business, but turf managers struggle to provide high quality surfaces when growing conditions are poor. Disease control is a particular problem, as many turf pathogens strike in cool, wet conditions prevalent in the UK from autumn to spring. Current pesticide reforms have reduced available products, creating an unsustainable situation of reliance on a few compounds. Furthermore, recent climatic changes have caused an increase in the severity of diseases and plant parasitic nematode (PPN) attack in the UK and Europe. PPNs attack all forms of turf grass, and there are no pesticides approved for their control. Thus, with potential problems of disease resistance arising from reduced product availability, and emergence of novel pests, integrated pest management (IPM) systems need to be properly investigated and implemented at the earliest opportunity.

This project will enable the UK sports turf industry to become globally competitive, through the production of high class turf surfaces in a sustainable fashion. Sports turf is currently one of the largest agricultural/horticultural consumers of pesticides and the technology we seek to develop will be economically advantageous to the UK, having potential to be sold globally. By developing new approaches that are compatible with, but not based on synthetic chemicals, we will uniquely create a strategy that addresses chemical reduction and economic growth in the turfgrass industry while satisfying environmental concerns.

The overall aim of this proposal is investigate novel seaweed formulations for their benefits of pest and disease protection, with the long term goal of seeking ways to reduce synthetic pesticide and fertiliser applications to sports turf.  Seaweed products have long been used as organic fertilizers, but these products may also contain secondary metabolites and endophyte fungi that are inhibitory to certain fungi, insects and nematodes.  Studies in vegetable crops suggest that some seaweed products (those derived from Ascophyllum nodosum) can increase resistance to foliar diseases and root nematode attack. Our CASE partner currently produces a product based on this species, so our objectives are to develop novel formulations and understand how A. nodosum can enhance pest and disease resistance of turf. This would represent a cost-effective and more environmentally sound way of managing turf than developing and seeking approvals for new synthetic pesticides. Seaweed has a huge advantage over other ‘organic’ products in turf management: it is compatible with pesticides, and can be used in IPM programmes, where chemical applications are reduced. Products containing living microbes do not have this advantage, as they may be killed by fungicides.

We will conduct a series of laboratory, glasshouse and field trials that create novel product formulations that are then tested on turf for direct plant growth effects and resistance to pests and diseases. Previous work at Royal Holloway has suggested that seaweed can also enhance soil microbial communities and we will determine whether any effects are due to secondary metabolites, endophyte fungi or a stimulation of the soil microbial community.  We will target nuisance organisms including nematodes and the main disease-causing fungus, Microdochium nivale, while simultaneously measuring effects on soil bacteria and beneficial arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.  We will conduct trials in which we vary seaweed formulations, application rates and times and study how the products perform when conventional pesticides are also applied. Field trials will take place at the partner’s trials facility in Lancashire, and a number of golf and premier league clubs. An existing studentship is focusing on the role of soil microbes in turf management and thus we have a large, established network of contacts and sites. The student would spend a minimum of six months at the partner’s research facilities in UK and the Netherlands and will benefit from working with their marketing and PR teams. Furthermore, the CASE partner will provide attendance at industry stakeholder events, educational seminars and exhibitions


Philips, C., Lindup, J. P. & Gange, A.C. (2001). Effects of seaweed and sulphur applications on beneficial fungi in golf putting greens.  Journal of Turfgrass Science, 77: 14-23. 

Ngala, B., Valdes, Y.,  dos Santos, G., Perry, R. & Wesemael, W. (2016) Seaweed-based products from Ecklonia maxima and Ascophyllum nodosum as control agents for the root-knot nematodes Meloidogyne chitwoodi and Meloidogyne hapla on tomato plants. Journal of Applied Phycology 28: 2073-82. 

Gadhave, K.R., Hourston, J.E. & Gange, A.C. (2016).  Developing soil microbial inoculants for pest management: Can one have too much of a good thing?  Journal of Chemical Ecology 42: 348-356


This four year studentship covers a stipend at the standard Research Council rate, research costs and tuition fees at the UK/EU rate, and is available for UK and EU students, UK residency requirements may apply. In addition, there is a contribution of £1,400 p.a. from the CASE partner, who will also contribute costs for placements at their research facilities in the UK and the Netherlands

Research Pages: - https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/alan-gange_1227d353-2f04-47b8-bd1b-b6bb263b5282.html

Closing date for applications is midnight on Friday 30th June 2017

3. A physiological and molecular analysis of the RHS rosemary collection - understanding and improving volatile synthesis

Supervisor: Dr Paul Davlin


Project description

Rosemary is one of the biggest-selling herbs in the UK, with over 5 million pots, bunches and packs sold per year. As well as its popularity for culinary flavouring, rosemary essential oils have been reported to have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties and even to improve memory.

A wide range of wild varieties exist and an extensive variation in volatile essential oil composition has been reported among the few that have been tested. This gives a wide assortment of different aromas and tastes. However, the biology behind this variation is poorly understood. The Royal Horticultural Society is currently carrying out a trial of a collection of over eighty rosemary varieties assembled from around the world. This studentship, funded by the RHS in conjunction with Royal Holloway University of London and Vitacress Herbs Ltd., aims to carry out a physiological and molecular analysis of the collection to better understand the biology of rosemary volatile production, while also identifying optimal varieties for cultivation.

The project will include analysis of the quality and quantity of the volatile essential oils and the study will aim to link this volatile profile to the expression of key biosynthetic genes (using RNAseq and qPCR) and to oil gland morphology (using SEM). The project will also examine the effect of growing conditions: temperature and light quality and quantity; and will explore whether addition of soil mycorrhiza can influence volatile production.

The project offers the opportunity to work closely with both the RHS and with Vitacress Herbs, the UK’s leading supplier of pot-grown and fresh cut herbs as well as providing training in a range of molecular biology techniques that will provide the student with excellent employment opportunities.

Further details can be obtained from the main project supervisor, Dr Paul Devlin, paul.devlin@rhul.ac.uk

Closing date for applications is midnight on Monday June 19th and we anticipate holding interviews on 27th of June.


Further information

For further details of the individual staff research interests, please refer to their individual research webpages.  Interested applicants are invited to send enquiries by email to the respective individual supervisors.  General admission enquiries should be sent to the School’s Director of Graduate Studies, Dr Mikhail Soloviev








Other studentships available

Our partners in the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership, Imperial College London also have studentships available. Details of their projects selected for their DTP Studentships together with instructions on how to apply and criteria for student eligibility may be found on their website. We are also partners in the London NERC DTP and have projects advertised on their website.


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