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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Understanding disease spread and evolution in metapopulations of threatened species

We are seeking applicants for the following PhD opportunity. The successful applicant will join a student cohort in Environment, Biodiversity and Genomics, training together, following an exciting programme designed to inspire the next generation of environmental experts, managers and leaders. They will be equipped to address some of the toughest challenges of our time.

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 150 PhD students working on projects in the biological and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

This project is a collaboration between researchers in the mathematics of biological systems (WH) and evolutionary ecology (RK) at QMUL and an expert in diseases of aquatic vertebrates at the Institute of Zoology (TG) and the student will be a component of all three research groups, giving an active and interesting cross-disciplinary research environment.

Project description

Introduced infectious diseases currently constitute significant biodiversity threats worldwide. In the UK The most notable of these are BD, AKA Chytrid disease, the introduced fungal disease of amphibians, ranavirus, also infecting amphibians, and crayfish plague which was introduced with invasive signal crayfish. The animals threatened by these exist in metapopulations: networks of small populations (e.g. individual ponds or lakes) connected by migrating animals. We know that the prevalence and impact of these diseases varies hugely between water bodies: as an example a recent survey of crayfish plague in SE England found that plague was absent from ~50% of sites even though crayfish were present (Knell, unpublished) — but we do not understand the processes underlying this variance.

We propose a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the eco-evo dynamics of these host-pathogen metapopulations. The student will develop mathematical models to help us understand both the movement of disease and hosts between water bodies and also their evolutionary responses in terms of virulence and resistance. Simultaneously, the student will generate   data on disease and host occurrence in a large number of UK waterbodies using newly developed eDNA technology.

Using the predictions from the modelling work and data on pathogen and host occurrence in UK waterbodies will allow the estimation of key parameters such as migration rates of hosts and the probability of disease arising or being lost in a waterbody. This knowledge and the modelling of resistance and virulence evolution will be a first step towards the development of management schemes for these damaging diseases based on metapopulation-scale processes. With appropriate interventions it is likely that both prevalence and virulence/resistance can be managed to minimise their impacts on vulnerable and endangered hosts.


This studentship is open to students applying for China Scholarship Council funding. Queen Mary University of London has partnered with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to offer a joint scholarship programme to enable Chinese students to study for a PhD programme at Queen Mary. Under the scheme, Queen Mary will provide scholarships to cover all tuition fees, whilst the CSC will provide living expenses for 4 years and one return flight ticket to successful applicants. 

Eligibility and applying

Applicants must:

  • Be Chinese students with a strong academic background.
  • Students must hold a PR Chinese passport.
  • Applicants can either be resident in China at the time of application or studying overseas. 
  • Students with prior experience of studying overseas (including in the UK) are eligible to apply. Chinese QMUL graduates/Masters’ students are therefore eligible for the scheme.

Please refer to the CSC website for full details on eligibility and conditions on the scholarship.

Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree, in an area relevant to the project: for example, biological sciences students with good mathematical or computational experience, or physics / computational science with a strong interest in biological questions. A masters degree is desirable, but not essential.

Applicants are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details.

The deadline for applications to Queen Mary is 30th January 2022. Applicants will need to complete an online application form by this date to be considered, including a CV, personal statement and qualifications. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for a formal interview by the project supervisor. Those who are successful in their application for our PhD programme will be issued with an offer letter which is conditional on securing a CSC scholarship (as well as any academic conditions still required to meet our entry requirements).

Once applicants have obtained their offer letter from Queen Mary they should then apply to CSC for the scholarship by the advertised deadline with the support of the project supervisor. For September 2022 entry, applicants must complete the CSC application on the CSC website between 10th March - 31st March 2022.

Only applicants who are successful in their application to CSC can be issued an unconditional offer and enrol on our PhD programme.

Apply Online


  • O’Sullivan, J.D., Knell, R.J. & Rossberg, A.G. (2019) Metacommunity-scale biodiversity regulation and the self-organised emergence of macroecological patterns. Ecology letters 22, 1428-1438
  • Fisher, M.C., Garner, T.W.J. (2020) Chytrid fungi and global amphibian declines. Nat Rev Microbiol 18, 332–343.
  • W. Huang, A. Traulsen, B. Werner, T. Hiltunen, L. Becks, 2017. Dynamical trade-offs arise from antagonistic coevolution and decrease intraspecific diversity. Nature Communications, 8:2059.
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