PhD Studentship: Does Microplastic Pollution Pose a Risk to Marine Life and Food Security? (COLE_UPML18EE)

University of East Anglia - School of Environmental Sciences

Location: Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Plymouth

Start Date: October 2018

No. of positions available: 1

Supervisor: Dr Matthew Cole

Project description: Background & Objective

Microplastics contamination is widespread in the water-column and sediments of marine and freshwater ecosystems across the globe. Plastic can be consumed by a wide range of organisms, including zooplankton, fish, seabirds and megafauna. Highly productive coastal waters, in which fishing and aquaculture is prevalent, are particularly susceptible to microplastic contamination owing to their proximity to sources of anthropogenic pollution. It is therefore of little surprise that microplastic particles and fibres have been identified in animals destined for human consumption (e.g. shellfish, fish). In recent years there has been growing evidence that microplastic particles and fibres can cause adverse health effects in biota and microplastic is an emerging issue of concern for human health and food security. You will test the hypothesis that microplastics pose a risk to marine life and food security. Key research questions include:

  • What is the current and predicted likelihood of animals consuming plastic in coastal areas?
  • At what concentrations do microplastics pose a risk to the health of marine animals?
  • How are microplastics handled by bivalves?
  • Are fisheries and aquaculture at risk of high microplastic exposure?

Research methodology and Training. The student will be based at Plymouth Marine Laboratory with access to modern laboratories, the new ultraclean microplastics research facility and the Research Vessel Plymouth Quest. The student will design and conduct a comprehensive field sampling campaign; and employ laboratory-based exposure studies to determine how microplastics are handled by bivalves, and how they can affect animals relevant to aquaculture by monitoring biomarkers of health. The student will receive training in a broad range of analytical techniques (isolation of plastics, characteristation, FT-IR analysis, electron microscopy), health biomarkers (ingestion rates, apical endpoints, sub-lethal endpoints), fieldwork, experimental design, scientific writing and statistics.

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with over twenty other research partners. Undertaking a PhD with the EnvEast DTP will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.

Secondary supervisors: Dr Trevor Tolhurst (UEA), Dr Pennie Lindeque (PML), Prof Richard Thompson (Plymouth University)

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 12/13 February 2018.

For further information, please visit

Person specification: Degree in biological, environmental, marine science or biochemistry. EnvEast welcomes applicants from quantitative disciplines who may have limited background in environmental sciences. Excellent candidates will be considered for an award of an additional 3-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses in the subject area.

Funding notes: Successful candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - in 2017/18, the stipend is £14,553. In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a stipend. For non-UK EU-resident applicants NERC funding can be used to cover fees, RTSG and training costs, but not any part of the stipend. Individual institutes may, however, elect to provide a stipend from their own resources. 

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