PHD projects

The following PhD projects are available with a starting date in September 2017 and there are funding options for both UK and non-UK students. We are also open to students proposing their own projects that fall within the interests of our group.

Project 1: The impact of parasitism on host populations in response to a changing environment.

Project Background: Climate change is expected to have a widespread impact on levels of parasitism and disease in wild populations with both ecological and economic consequences. However, the actual response of populations to such changes are often a complex mix of factors that affect an individual’s resilience to disease, levels of exposure and other environmental stressors operating in the environment. We are interested in how environmental conditions in early life can shape an individual’s response to infection and how current conditions limit their ability to deal disease. We have shown that successful breeding in a long-lived, threatened seabird, the European shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis, is constrained by parasitism, particularly in late breeders and years of low breeding success. However, these effects are sex specific with different consequences for sons and daughters and for different members of a brood. However, the proximate mechanisms underlying these different host responses remain unclear. Are these effects driven by seasonal changes in parasite level, do individuals vary in their susceptibility to infection over time or are these effects simply a consequence of seasonal changes in the composition of breeders that differ in their overall ability to deal with parasitism? It is important to establish the relative importance of these different potential explanations if any prediction is to be made as to how forecast changes in their environment will impact on overall population success.

This project will examine how early life conditions and current environmental conditions impact on an individual’s levels of infection and how this impacts on breeding success and survival.  There is scope to expand these questions into considering the impact of parasitism on non-host members of the population and to model population level effects of parasitism under different environmental scenarios. With major shifts in breeding dates being widely reported the need to establish these mechanisms has become more urgent.

This project will combine data analysis of both new and historical long-term data with field studies (based on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve). A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills including animal handling, field skills and molecular and parasitological lab based skills aswell as training in data management and analaysis.The project is part of on an ongoing collaborative project between Dr Emma Cunningham at the University of Edinburgh ( http://cunningham.bio.ed.ac.uk/ ), Dr Sarah Burthe (http://www.ceh.ac.uk/staff/sarah-burthe ) based at CEH Edinburgh and Francis Daunt (http://www.ceh.ac.uk/staff/francis-daunt) based at CEH Edinburgh. See also http://www.ceh.ac.uk/sci_programmes/IsleofMayLong-TermStudy.html). The project also provides the student the opportunity to interact with a number of bodies involved with fishery and seabird conservation in the North Sea and to direct the scope of the project within the broad remit stated above.

Further reading:

Granroth-Wilding, HMV, Burthe S, Lewis S, Hepborn, K, Takahashi, EA, Newell, M, Daunt, F, Cunningham EJA (2015) Indirect effects of parasitism: costs of infection to other individuals can be greater than direct costs borne by the host. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282 (1811)     Article Number: 20150602   

Granroth-Wilding, HMV, Burthe, S, Lewis, S, Reed, TE, Herborn, KA, Newell, M, Takahashi, E, Daunt, F, Cunningham, EJA (2014) Parasitism in early life: environmental conditions shape intra-brood variation in responses to infection. Ecology and Evolution 4, (DOI: 10.1002/ece3.1192)

Reed, TE, Daunt,  F, Kiploks, AJ, Burthe, S, Granroth-Wilding, HMV,  Takahashi, EA, Wanless, S,  Cunningham, EJA (2012)  Impact of parasites in early life: Contrasting effects on juvenile growth for different family members. PLOS One 7(2): e32236.

Burthe,S,  Newell  MA, Goodman G, Butler A,  Bregnballe T, Harris  E,  Wanless S, Cunningham EJA and  Daunt F (2012)  Endoscopy as a novel method for assessing endoparasite burdens. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 4, 207-216.

Reed, TE, Daunt, F, Hall, ME, Phillips RA, Wanless, S, Cunningham, EJA (2008)  Parasite treatment affects maternal investment in sons. Science 321: 1681-1682.



If you are interested in any of these projects or in proposing your own project within the interests of the group please send to e.cunningham@ed.ac.uk

1. A brief CV (2 pages max), 

2. A short statement outlining your research interests and experience, and how you see your interests combining with those of our group;

3. Contact details of 2 references who can comment on your ability to undertake a PhD. 

Interviews will be in from January onwards so please get in touch by December 2016 to be considered for the following year.