UNSW Scientia PhD Scholarships

The UNSW Scientia PhD Scholarship Scheme is part of our dedication to harnessing our cutting-edge research to solve complex problems and improve the lives of people in local and global communities. Scientia candidates will have a strong commitment to making a difference in the world with demonstrated potential for contributing to the social engagement and/or global impact pillars of the UNSW 2025 Strategy.

Applicants are required to express their interest in a specific research area with an identified supervisory team. There are over 190 research projects to choose from.

  • Work on high quality research projects with the best supervisory teams in world class environments
  • Stipend $41,209 per year for four years (2019 rate, indexed)
  • Tuition fees covered for the full 4 year candidature
  • Personal Development coaching and mentoring will form a critical part of your highly personalised leadership development plan
  • Career Development up to $10k each year to build your career and support your international research collaborations
  • Indigenous Research at least 5 scholarships will be reserved for Indigenous candidates 
Expression of Interest now open. Closes Friday 12 July 2019

Reconstructing Australia’s fire history from cave stalagmites

Extreme fire weather, and the length of the fire season, is increasing across large parts of Australia. However, our knowledge of wildfire recurrence and of fire and climate interactions is largely limited to the last few decades, when satellite imagery is available. Stalagmites offer an untapped opportunity to reconstruct past fire and climate events. This PhD will use newly established methodologies to produce high-resolution datasets of past fires and associated hydroclimate conditions. The PhD candidate will generate them for south west Australia, providing highly needed data for this region which has experienced a sustained recent drying trend.

The candidate will analyse and interpret large geochemical datasets that will be generated by the project. As such, they need to be sufficiently numerate to be able to be trained to handle such data. It would suit an environmental earth scientist, ideally with some geochemistry background.

Supervisory Team: Andy Baker, TimCohen (University of Wollongong) and Pauline Treble (ANSTO)

Mapping marine debris risk around Australia

Marine debris is a global environmental concern. Threats from marine debris are understood conceptually, but their spatial and temporal distributions are largely unknown. Without this knowledge, we cannot prioritise management actions or predict future change. This project will leverage Australia’s largest marine debris database (AMDD) to create risk maps of marine debris threats around Australia. It will develop novel methodologies to estimate threats for marine debris items, and examine the distributions of threats in the context of oceanography and other influential forces. Outcomes will directly inform national and international management of this global problem.

The candidate will have a strong commitment to making a difference in the world with demonstrated academic excellence in environmental science relative to career-stage. The ideal candidate will have strong understanding of experimental design in ecology or environmental science. Statistical analyses and programming skills (preferably R) are desirable. He or she must be willing to conduct both laboratory and field experiments, and travel for remote fieldwork. A background in oceanography and modelling is desirable.

Supervisory Team: Graeme Clark, Alex Sen Gupta and Emma Johnston

In the spotlight: impacts of artificial light at night on the coastal environmental

The world’s coastlines are becoming rapidly urbanised, with marine life affected by a range of stressors. More than 20% of the world’s coastlines are now exposed to artificial light at night and this is expected to increase in both intensity and spatial extent in the coming decades. While there is evidence of impacts on some marine animals, the effect of this stressor on important ecological processes and multispecies interactions is largely unknown. This project will assess how coastal communities and their trophic interactions are affected by artificial light at night and develop fundamental knowledge for conservation strategies in urban areas.

The ideal candidate has an Honours or equivalent degree in Marine Biology, Ecology or Environmental Sciences and has previous fieldwork experience. The candidate needs to have excellent written and oral communication skills and be able to work independently and as part of a team. The candidate should have a strong motivation to understand the mechanisms by which human activities affect the environment as well as a genuine desire to improve and protect the environment through fundamental research and its translation into management tools. The candidate will have the willingness and capacity to implement required H&S procedures according to university policies as well as equal opportunity policies and programs.

Supervisory Team: Mariana Mayer Pinto, Katherine Dafforn and Alistair Poore

Clothes, fibres and filters that reduce microplastic pollution

Clothing fibres are the most abundant form of plastic found in the ecosystem. This global pollution has increased by 450% in 60-years. While the use of natural fibres, in place of plastic, and filters are marketed as eco-friendly products that mitigate fibre pollution, scientific evidence is lacking. This Ph.D. will determine how natural and plastic fibres of clothing, clothing brands and filters alter fibre emissions and ecotoxicological impacts to aquatic wildlife via sewage. This cutting-edge research will underpin global efforts by the public, government and companies to reduce fibre pollution.

The candidate will have a strong commitment to making a difference in the world with demonstrated excellence in ecotoxicology, environmental science and engineering relative to career-stage. Technical skills and experience of designing environmental surveys and experiments, life-cycle assessment, multifactorial statistics, vibrational spectroscopy and social engagement would be beneficial.

Supervisory Team: Mark Anthony Browne, Richard Stuetz (Engineering) and Emma Johnston

Sexual conflict and the “paradox of sex”: insights from stick-insects

This project addresses a central question in biology: why is sexual reproduction so prevalent in animals? It will test an exciting new hypothesis based on sexual conflict that could revolutionize our understanding of the evolution of animal reproduction. The sexual conflict hypothesis will be tested for the first time through a combination of genetic, behavioural, life-history, and microbiome analyses conducted in natural populations of stick-insects in North Queensland and in the laboratory, under the mentorship of experts in evolutionary, population-genetic, and microbiome analysis. It will also contribute to monitoring of natural insect populations.

We are looking for a keen, motivated student interested in undertaking cutting-edge evolutionary research and acquiring the wide range of skills needed to succeed in an academic research career. The ideal candidate will have a strong background in evolutionary ecology and genetics, preferably including familiarity with sexual coevolution theory, and will be willing to carry out field-work in the tropical rainforest of north Queensland, Australia, as well as laboratory experiments and assays at UNSW in Sydney. Experience working with insects, and conducting field-work, will be an asset. Strong conceptual skills, quantitative/statistical skills, and proficiency in scientific writing, will be very valuable as well. Students with backgrounds in other areas of biology are encouraged to apply if they have a keen interest in the project, and demonstrated capacity for research (publications, experience, etc.). The student will have an opportunity to learn specialized skills and techniques required for this project.

Supervisory Team: Russell Bonduriansky, Lee Ann Rollins and Suhelen Egan

Phenotypic plasticity and aging in a changing world

Human-induced changes such as clmate change threaten many populations. Evidence suggests that for many organisms, an increase in temperature expedites aging. Importantly, aging is often associated with the loss of phenotypic plasticity, key for population viability in a changing world. Surprisingly, we know very little about how plasticity changes as organisms age. This project will fill this knowledge gap on age-dependent plasticity using both theoretical and empirical approaches. Our project will reveal not only how phenotypic plasticity can dampen the effect of climate change, but also how, in turn, climate change itself can affect phenotypic plasticity.

We are looking for a candidate with a background in ecology and evolution, so they are familiar with the theory and literature, although a candidate with a background in mathematics, statistics and computer sciences is also suitable. Ideally, a candidate should have some experience in empirical work (e.g. having conducted a field or lab experiment of their own) and good quantitative and computational skills (e.g. basic knowledge of linear algebra, competence in R). Also, we seek a demonstrated ability in academic communication in the form of journal publications and conference presentations.

Supervisory Team: Shinichi Nakagawa, Szymon Drobniak and Tracey Rogers

Ecological restoration strategies in urban ecosystems

Regeneration of native vegetation is a key tool for conserving the biodiversity of Australia’s cities. Despite the investment of substantial amounts of council funds and thousands of volunteer hours in urban bush regeneration projects, we have almost no information on the efficacy of different regeneration strategies. In this project, we will combine past records from regenerators and councils with new surveys of vegetation condition to assess the success of different regeneration techniques. This research will transform Australian bush regeneration from guesswork to a rigorous scientifically-backed endeavour, improving our ability to return degraded urban habitats to functioning ecosystems.

The successful candidate will have an undergraduate degree and research experience (e.g. Honours or MSc research) in Ecology. They will have strong statistical analysis skills and effective written and oral communication skills (preferably including past experience in manuscript preparation). They will need to coordinate with a large (existing) network of Sydney council land managers and bush regenerators, so will need the capacity to work with a diverse range of people. In addition, the successful candidate should be capable of leading field research, and be willing to acquire plant identification skills for the flora of the Sydney region. A driver’s license is essential. The successful candidate will be part of a vibrant, collaborative and supportive research group, so good interpersonal skills and a passion for ecology are essential.

Supervisory Team: Stephen Bonser, David Eldridge and Angela Moles

Is there life on Mars?

This project will investigate whether digitate opaline silica nodules (DSNs) discovered by NASAs Spirit rover on Mars are a biosignature. This interdisciplinary study will involve: 1) mapping terrestrial DSNs relative to hot spring flow vs evaporation rate; 2) functional analysis of microbes involved in DSN formation; 3) analogue hot spring experiments to test whether DSNs can form without biology. The search for life outside Earth is one of humanities’ Grand Challenges and thus the project is of international interest. It has the potential to greatly influence future missions to Mars and our understanding of the Universe.

The ideal candidate should have top undergraduate marks and a broad science background with a major in microbiology, and a burning interest in, and familiarity with, Astrobiology. Our preference is for a woman. S/he would have field experience in a large-scale sampling campaign, particularly of microbiology, and have experience with functional gene analysis and trace metal and REE geochemistry. The candidate should be an excellent communicator and have experience leading and working collaboratively within broad, multidisciplinary and multi-national research teams. They should be self-motivated, and involved in science outreach. A second language would be preferred.

Supervisory Team: Martin Van Kranendonk, Brendan Burns (BABS) and Anna Wang (Chemistry)

Large scale river restoration - integrating environmental and cultural values

The Lower Murrumbidgee floodplain is one of the most important large wetland areas in the Murray-Darling Basin. The Australian and New South Wales Governments recently purchased the land (19 properties, 88,000 ha) and water entitlements (320,000 ML) at a cost of $180 million. UNSW was part of a successful consortium of Nari Nari Tribal Council, The Nature Conservancy and Murray Wetlands Working Group who were given carriage of land and water management planning of the project, the largest river restoration project in the Murray-Darling Basin. This project aims to integrate environmental and cultural values in its restoration with environmental flows.

We are looking for someone with interdisciplinary skills spanning environmental, hydrological and cultural values in relation to river restoration. The research would involve collaborating with a range of stakeholders, including Traditional Owners, environmental flow managers, hydrological engineers and scientists. The research would focus on how best to restore this magnificent ecosystem, involving the modelling of flow and flooding regimes and tracking future trajectories of restoration for the many different ecosystems, their plants, animals and areas of high cultural importance. Our candidate should ideally be a good communicator, with highly proficient quantitative modelling skills and be prepared to engage in significant amounts of fieldwork. Given this project will also have considerable impacts on the management of environmental flows, the successful candidate should also be able to work with government agencies and have a willingness to develop skills in interpreting relevant policy and legislation related to environmental flow management.

Supervisory Team: Richard Kingsford, Margaret Raven (Arts & Social Sciences) and Will Glamore (Civil & Environmental Engineering)

Could economic inequality be slowing trends toward gender equity?

As wealthy Western countries have progressed toward gender equity, differences between women and men in psychological traits, and conditions like anxiety and depression have, paradoxically, increased. One intriguing possibility is that rising income inequality among men and among women has changed incentive structures leading to wider gender gaps. Currently we know little about whether women and men respond differently to inequality. This project includes experiments (conducted in person and online) and a cross-national study in order to understand individual differences in how people respond to inequality and changing global trends in behaviour. 

The candidate may have a background in psychology, behavioural ecology, anthropology, or economics. They will be committed to the empirical, theory-driven study of human behaviour. Ideally they will have some experience in research design and statistical analysis. Programming experience and advanced computer science skills may be useful. The phenomena we study are often ideologically polarising, and require an ability to write and speak with clarity and nuance. Evidence of excellent writing and communication skills, in academic and/or non-academic contexts, would be ideal. We value diversity of background and experience in our team. The cross-national nature of some of our work means experience working in a variety of cultures will be an asset.

Supervisory Team: Rob Brooks, Michael Kasumovic and Khandis Blake

Friend or foe: Fungal drivers of emerging marine diseases

Disease events are increasingly impacting critical marine habitats. This project will examine the role of marine fungi in health and disease of keystone organisms in coastal ecosystems, including macroalgae, seagrasses, sponges and corals. This ground-breaking project will undertake a multi-organism assessment of disease events and determine the underlying role of microbial interactions in disease progression. In doing so this project aims to provide insight and offer solutions to the global problem of emerging marine diseases, a topic that has increasing importance in the face of climate change, urbanization and other human impacts on marine ecosystems.

This project requires an outstanding graduate with a strong academic record including an Honours Class I or equivalent and experience in research publishing. The ideal candidate has a strong interest in marine biology, disease processes, conservation and/or microbial ecology. Graduates with a background in microbiology and molecular biology are ideal, however candidates from a biomedical background with an interest in microbial ecology are also encouraged to apply. Experience in microbial ecology and bioinformatics is an advantage.

Supervisory Team: Suhelen Egan, Torsten Thomas and Megan Lenardon (BABS)

Novel microbial processes that support life in the deep ocean

The deep, dark ocean is inhospitable, but oases of life are sporadically found in reefs made out of corals and sponges. These invertebrates live in symbiosis with microorganisms, which can use energy that seeps from the seafloor to sequester carbon. This project will analyse how these microorganism convert the sparse resources in the deep ocean to support life and entire ecosystems. We will explore this during deep-sea expeditions and by using state-of-the-art microbial community analysis. Deep-sea ecosystems have the potential to sequester carbon for eons and the project will reveal what limits this process and how it can be enhanced.

This project requires an outstanding graduate with a strong academic record, including an Honours Class I or equivalent. The ideal candidate should have an interest and/or background in microbial physiology & metabolism, symbiosis and marine ecology. Experiences in bioinformatics are an advantage.

Supervisory Team: Torsten Thomas, Tracy Ainsworth and Belinda Ferrari (BABS)

Warming Impacts during the Last Interglacial

The Last Interglacial (130,000-116,000 years ago) is the most recent ‘super-interglacial’, providing a process analogue for future change, with global temperatures warmer than present (1-2˚C), yet with sea level over 6 m higher, suggesting a ‘tipping point’ in the Earth’s system was passed. Few terrestrial environmental records extend this far back, and most that do in Australia were obtained many decades ago, when many of the geochronology, geochemistry and remote sensing techniques in common use today were in their infancy or did not exist. This project will use lake and coastal sedimentary and speleothem sequences to reconstruct Last Interglacial climate and environmental changes on sub-decadal to millennial timescales across Australia. The results will be used to inform on the exact timing, magnitude and impact of this warmer-than-present period on the Australian landscape and hydrological systems.

The successful candidate will be expected to hold a Bachelor of Science (Honours) distinction or higher-class degree in Earth science, physical geography or a related field. The candidate will have analytical skills and experience with Quaternary science methods.

Supervisory Team: Zoe Thomas, Andy Baker and Chris Turney

Biophysical factors influencing coral reef restoration success

Anthropogenic impacts are now threatening coral reefs worldwide and rapid changes to coral reef ecosystems have been widely documented, including on Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef (GBR). To assist coral reef ecosystems overcome future environmental challenges, conservation efforts coupled with local-scale restoration are now being prioritised in the most degraded reef ecosystems world-wide. Understanding the underlying biological causes and environmental drivers of mortality in restoration programs are fundamental for developing optimal strategies and improving the feasibility of restoration efforts. The current project builds upon existing innovative trans-disciplinary collaborations to derive new insights into factors that support coral survival, which can be implemented in coral reef restoration practices across Australia.

The ideal candidate will have an interest in coral reefs, climate change, and reef restoration, and experience working or studying in one of these research areas. This project will be best suited to an outstanding graduate with a strong academic record, including either a Masters degree or Honours Class I, or the equivalent and an interest in, or experience with, academic publishing or communication of research.

Supervisory Team: Tracy Ainsworth, Alex Sen Gupta and Sophie Lewis (Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Science)

Developing genomic resources to advance the molecular ecology of invasions

Invasive species pose a major challenge to biodiversity worldwide but also provide the unique opportunity to study evolution in action. Rapid changes are often associated with invaders’ introduction to novel environments. Understanding how molecular mechanisms drive these changes enables the creation of innovative solutions to controlling invasions and managing native species’ response to climatic change. The iconic Australian cane toad invasion is one of the best studied globally and is an emerging model for invasion genomics. This project will use whole genome sequencing, novel bioinformatic approaches and proteomics to identify molecular drivers of invasion success.

We seek a highly motivated, curiosity-driven student with an interest in evolutionary biology and bioinformatics, who would like to understand why invasive species flourish. Ideally, candidates will have demonstrated computer literacy and be willing to learn new approaches to analysing genomic and proteomic data. Strong writing skills will be an asset. We will consider applicants coming from either a computing background who want to work in evolutionary biology or those with evolutionary biology backgrounds and a keen interest in bioinformatics. The supervisory team offer a high level of support in the fields of evolutionary biology, genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics. This project provides the opportunity for the successful applicant to develop the most current skills and build a successful career in these fields while contributing to solutions for two major global issues: loss of biodiversity and species' response to climate change.

Supervisory Team: Lee Rollins, Marc Wilkins (BABS) and Richard Edwards (BABS)

Atmospheric transport of microplastics and deposition on the South Pacific

Microplastics have been identified in remote locations far from urban centres, including Antarctica, the Mariana Trench and the Great Australian Bight, due to long-distance river/ocean transport. This research will conduct the first ever investigation into the long-range atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastic particles. Atmospheric transport of desert dust is known to occur over thousands of kilometres across oceans and continents. Atmospheric transport of microplastics over 100km was recently identified in the French Pyrenees. This project will investigate long-range atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Australia.

The ideal candidate will be curious and possess a demonstrated willingness to apply a breadth of skills in order to answer the research question. They will have the ability to work across scales of investigation and effectively connect results from the field and laboratory to the broader regional and global atmospheric processes. The ideal candidate will thrive as part of a multidisciplinary team and under the broader project partnership of atmospheric dust and urban air quality investigation being set up in the Pacific. The ideal candidate will have excelled in previous academic studies in either science or engineering and have worked with microplastics or other contaminant analysis in either water or soil samples. They will possess a demonstrated ability in and/or a willingness to learn new technical skills and undertake a mixture of field, laboratory and numerical modelling lines of investigation.

Supervisory Team: Richard Stuetz (Engineering), Mark Anthony Browne and Andrew Dansie (Engineering)