PhD Studentship in Using Plant-Soil Feedbacks to Enhance Ecosystem Restoration University of Southampton, Biological Sciences Research United Kingdom

PhD Studentship – Using plant-soil feedbacks to enhance ecosystem restoration


Biological Sciences Research


Location: Highfield Campus

Closing Date: Friday 05 January 2018

Reference: 931817BJ

PhD Supervisor: Dr Jane Catford (Biological Sciences, UoS)


Co-supervisors: Dr Bjorn JM Robroek (Biological Sciences, UoS), Dr Robert Griffiths (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford)

Application Deadline: 5 January 2018

PhD Description:


Ecosystem restoration is a key goal for biodiversity conservation. Most restoration projects focus on reinstating historical environmental conditions and replanting native vegetation. However, recent research has shown that inoculating the soil with microbes specific to the target plant community can enhance restoration success [1]. The soil microbes facilitate native vegetation reestablishment through positive plant-soil feedbacks, speeding up restoration and reducing the need for ongoing management. Some plants facilitate microbes more than others though, as plant species differ in the amount and quality of the material they deposit into the rhizosphere [2]. This suggests that the speed and extent of plant community restoration would be affected by the particular combination of plant species and microbial inocula used in restoration works, and the order in which different plant species might be (re)planted [3].


Working in herbaceous vegetation communities, this project will specifically test whether a) different plant species facilitate positive plant-soil feedbacks more than others, such that “nurse plants” that facilitate restoration of the whole community might exist; b) if there are certain plant traits associated with such feedbacks (i.e. if plant traits can be used to characterize these “nurse plants”); and c) whether plant community restoration can be enhanced by using particular plant-microbe combinations.




This project will determine whether the sequence that plant species establish in a community modulates the benefits of soil inoculation for ecosystem restoration. The project will involve surveys of field experiments, designing and establishing complementary glasshouse experiments, trait measurements, laboratory analyses and statistical analysis of the collected data.


The student will be able to make use of two long-term experiments (grasslands, Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, USA; peatlands, Store Mosse National Park, Sweden) for characterising natural plant-microbe linkages, and determining how the functional composition of plant communities relates to soil microbial communities. Building on existing data, the student will: i) characterise the functional composition (using morphological and ecophysiological traits) of the plant communities, and ii) sample the associated soil microbial community using molecular techniques.


To interrogate the observed relationships from these existing experiments, the student will then design targeted field or glasshouse trials, which will be conducted at the University of Southampton. The field trials will focus on understanding interactions between different combinations of soil inoculates and plant species, and whether planting species in a certain order varies the extent and rate of plant community establishment.


The specifics of this project will be tailored to suit the interests of the student.


The student will be supervised by Catford, Robroek (both UoS) and Dr Robert Griffiths, who is based at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford.




The SPITFIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at Biological Sciences. Specific training will include:


(i)experimental design, field survey methods and trait measurement techniques;


(ii) training in DNA sequencing;


(iii) understanding/developing ecological theory;


(iv) data compilation and management;


(v) advanced quantitative statistics;


(vi) preparation, writing and reviewing of research grants and scientific manuscripts for peer-reviewed international journals;


(vii) project and team management, including budgeting and field trip coordination;


(viii) oral presentation skills including at international conferences.


The student will be able to travel to the USA and Sweden where she/he would work in two international research consortia.

[1] Wubs et al. 2016, Nature Plants, 2, 16107;

[2] Robroek et al. 2015, J Ecology 103: 925-934;

[3] Fukami et al. Ecology Letters 13: 675-684.


For more information:


Funding Notes:


The project is funded for 3.5 years and welcomes applicants from the UK and EU (EU applicants need to have been residents in the UK for at least 3 years prior to application), who have or expect to obtain at least an upper second class degree (BSc or MSc) in Biological Sciences or allied subjects. Funding will cover fees and a stipend at current research council rates of £14,553 per annum for 2017-18, subject to rise for 2018-19 entrants.

Due to funding restrictions, this position is only open to UK/EU applicants who have been resident in the UK for at least 3 years prior to application.




For more information:


Information on how to apply:


Applications should be submitted online at:


Please place Jane Catford’s name in the field for proposed supervisor.


General enquiries should be made to Jane Catford at or Bjorn Robroek at Any queries on the application process should be made to


The University of Southampton and Biological Sciences both hold an Athena Swan Silver Award demonstrating their commitment to provide equal opportunities and to advance the representation of women in STEM/M subjects: science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Due consideration will be given to applicants who have taken a career break. University benefits include onsite childcare facilities, state-of-the-art on-campus sports, arts and culture facilities, a full programme of events and a range of staff discounts.

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