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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Determining remaining regional biodiversity reserves from community turnover patterns

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.

The successful applicant become part of the research group of Axel Rossberg, members of which study a range of topics in theoretical ecology. Work from the group over the last 6 years has been published in high-impact outlets such as Nature Communications, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Global Change Biology, and Ecology Letters. The student will be co-supervised by Tom Fayle, who works on the ecology of interactions between species and the manner in which this is altered by human disturbance.

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

As part of the project, you will receive training in advanced community ecology and statistical and mathematical methods. You will also gain experience working with stakeholders of biodiversity conservation and learn about the decision processes conservation involves.

Project description

A hot current topic in community ecology is the fact that the composition of ecological communities tends to change over time while the number of co-existing species remains approximately constant. What drives this turnover and what can we learn observing it (e.g. Blowes et al. in Science, 2019, Our work with spatially structured community models suggests answers: turnover is driven by biodiversity reserves at regional level; there is a sharp transition point in regional diversity below which turnover stops and local species richness and so ecosystem services decline; and the distance from this transition point is related to the maximum amount by which communities change over long times (O’Sullivan et al., Ecol Lett, 2021,

The PhD student will put these theoretical results into practice. Using publicly available databases of community time series (e.g. BioTIME), the student will develop robust statistics (ecological indicators) quantifying the maximum long-term amount of change in ecological communities. The student will then probe how this statistic relates to environmental factors, external stressors, and known biodiversity status.

For example, it has been shown that reduced insect diversity affects pollination and so harvests of fruit crops in some parts of the USA. We hypothesise that in these cases the regional biodiversity pool is exhausted and temporal turnover has come to a halt. At places where this is not yet the case, observation of turnover will allows us to predict how close we are to this transition.


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 a first or upper-second class honours degree and a masters degree in an area relevant to the project (e.g. ecology, biodiversity, environmental science, mathematical modelling of biological systems).

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


  • Blowes, Shane A., et al. "The geography of biodiversity change in marine and terrestrial assemblages." Science 366.6463 (2019): 339-345.
  • O’Sullivan, Jacob D., J. Christopher D. Terry, and Axel G. Rossberg. "Intrinsic ecological dynamics drive biodiversity turnover in model metacommunities." Nature Communications 12.1 (2021): 1-11.
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