UCL Department of Geography
PhD Research Opportunities
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PhD Research Opportunities

The UCL Department of Geography invites applications from suitably qualified students for PhD research. Please contact the appropriate member of staff directly to propose a research topic (under their key research themes) or to request further details of a specific project. Further details relating to funding opportunities and application information can be found here. Not all projects are eligible for funding, and some might have significant costs beyond the standard tuition fee level, so please check with staff or the Graduate Tutor before applying.

Staff (and links to their homepage) Key Research Themes Links to Specific Projects
Pushpa Arabindoo - New middle class and the politics of urban development in the global South
- Environmentalism and elitism in cities of the global South
- Religion and diaspora - Pious circuits of capital
- Preferred area of focus: South Asia
- Slum evictions and resettlement
Jan Axmacher - Biodiversity conservation and conservation biology, especially in relation to terrestrial arthropods and vascular plants
- Geographically, projects based in Europe or other temperate regions (China), as well as in the tropics
Helen Bennion - Aquatic ecology and palaeoecology
- Diatom taxonomy and applications
- Impacts of eutrophication on standing fresh waters over a range of time scales
- The use of the lake sediment record to assess environmental change, reference conditions and restoration targets
- Application of science to lake management and conservation, particularly the EU Water Framework Directive
Understanding early diatom changes in shallow lake sediment cores: Diatoms assemblages as early warning signs?
Caroline Bressey
Chris Brierley

Tropical cyclones in the climate system
Helene Burningham - Meso-scale (historical) coastal, estuarine and marine morphodynamics
- Mixed energy systems, estuary-coast interaction and inlet dynamics
- Conservation and ecology of coastal sedimentary environments
- Coastal GIS
Richard Dennis - Historical geographies of 'modern' cities, c. 1800-1950, esp. related to (1) housing; (2) transport
- Urban Canada
- The production of space in 19th- and early 20th-century urban fiction
Paul Densham - Development of algorithms for network and locational analysis
- Spatial decision support systems (SDSSs) for individuals, groups and organisations
- New computational environments to support SDSSs and network/locational analysis
Mat Disney
Jason Dittmer - Geographies of media, especially comic books
- Critical geopolitics, especially popular geopolitics
- Diplomacy and the everyday state
- Religion and geopolitics
Claire Dwyer - Geographies of race, racism and ethnicity,
- Transnationalism and diaspora identities,
- Geographies of religion
Jurgen Essletzbichler
Roger Flower
Jon French - Numerical modelling of coast, estuary and lake systems
Matthew Gandy
Andrew Harris - Urban infrastructure especially transport
- Vertical geographies
- Urban regeneration, gentrification, creative cities
- Art, sound, space and the city
- The travel/transfer of urban policy and planning
Russell Hitchings - Material culture and ways of making consumption more sustainable
- Everyday life and cultural practices of keeping human bodies warm and cool
- Contextual studies of social practice and social norms
- Ways of living with climate in terms of weather and the seasons
- Interviewing, ethnography and other qualitative methods
Jonathan Holmes Reconstruction of Quaternary climate and hydrology from non-marine ostracods – developing a new approach combining palaeoecology and stable isotope geochemistry

Historical and recent salinity fluctuations in the Thurne Broads: Implications for nature conservation
Alan Ingram Political geography and geopolitics, with particular reference to:
- Governmentality, biopolitics and security
- Global health issues
- Relationships between geopolitics and art
- Nationalism
Peter Jones
Viv Jones
James Kneale - Geographies of alcohol, drinking places, health, alcohol policy and abstinence (historical and contemporary); life insurance, governmentality and the 'financial subject'
- Representations of space in fiction, particularly non-realist fiction: science fiction, the fantastic, etc
Alan Latham
Charlotte Lemanski - South African post-apartheid urban transformation
- Contemporary Indian urban processes of participation and governance
- Fear and (in)security in cities
- Poverty and urban governance
- Urban housing and land (for low- and high-income households)
- Migration from Southern Africa to the UK
- Urban segregation and territorialisation
Property formalisation in urban India
Philip Lewis
Simon Lewis

Paul Longley - Geographic information systems and science
- Geodemographics and socio-economic applications of GIS
- Geo-genealogy: the quantitative analysis of family names
- Information integration within GIS
- Public service delivery (specifically health, education and policing)
- Social network analysis
- Housing and retail market analysis
- Fractal analysis of cities
- Survey research practice and e-social science
Anson Mackay
Mark Maslin
Ben Page - Migration and Development
- Environment and Development
- Housing and architecture in West Africa
- Transnational Weddings
- Political Ecology of water supply
- West Africa
- African diaspora
Samuel Randalls
Jennifer Robinson - Urban politics and development in South African cities
- The role of UCL in the urban development politics of London
- Urban comparative studies
- Mobilising community voices at the metropolitan-scale
- Rethinking neoliberalism and urban governance
- Urban policy mobilities
Neil Rose - Impacts of atmospheric pollutants such as heavy metals and and fossil-fuel derived particulates on the environment on a UK, European and global scale
- The spatial and temporal distributions of trace metals and fly-ash particles
- The use of the lake sediment fly-ash particle record as a chronological tool
- Temporal aspects, and drivers, of sediment accumulation rate changes in lakes
- The remobilisation of contaminants in catchments and their transfer to freshwater systems
The impact of eroded lake catchments on the contaminant content of biota
Carl Sayer
Richard Taylor
Julian Thompson - Wetland hydrology, management and conservation
- Catchment and wetland hydrological modelling

Chronis Tzedakis
See NERC DTP project
Ann Varley - Urban land and housing especially in Latin America
- Home
- Law, property and urban governance
- Urban informality
- Gender, families and households
- Ageing
- Social aspects of disasters and vulnerability


Changes in vegetation and the hydrological cycle in the Mediterranean during Marine Isotope Stage 11
First supervisor:
Chronis Tzedakis
Second(other) supervisor(s):
Mark Maslin
Of the various geologically recent interglacials, the interval centred around 400 thousand years ago, known as Marine Isotope Stage 11, had an orbital configuration very similar to that of the present interglacial, characterized by low amplitude variations in insolation. However, the contrast between the moderate insolation signal and the strong climatic response does not fit well with Milankovitch orbital theory and for that reason is difficult to model successfully. Moreover, while in some records MIS 11 stands out as a prominent interglacial, in others it does not appear very different to the Holocene. Regional studies are therefore required to specify the development of the terrestrial and oceanographic conditions of this period.

One way to address this is through joint pollen and palaeoceanographic proxy analyses in the same marine archive recovered adjacent to the continent. This allows an in situ assessment of phase and amplitude relationships between climate changes and the vegetation response, bypassing correlation uncertainties. To date, a substantial body of evidence from the Iberian margin has led to improved insights into the timing and duration of interglacial conditions in SW Europe and the response of vegetation to climate variability. These data have also revealed a strong coherence between changes in tree populations and atmospheric CH4 concentrations on orbital and millennial timescales, reflecting variations in the continental hydrological balance. Previous work from the Portuguese margin has revealed the presence of two peaks in sea surface temperatures and tree population expansion during the interval of full interglacial conditions, with the second peak as the more prominent. However, it remains unclear whether the same pattern is also observed further east in the Mediterranean, where marine-terrestrial records are currently not available.

The proposed project will examine changes in vegetation and the hydrological cycle during MIS 11, by generating pollen records from marine sequences in the Western and Central-Eastern Mediterranean Sea. These will be combined with ongoing analyses of palaeoceanographic proxies from the same sequences, which will provide better constraints on links between key parameters in the climate system.
References/Suggested Reading
Desprat et al. (2005) Is vegetation responsible for glacial inception during periods of muted insolation changes? Quat. Sci. Rev. 24, 1361-1374
Loutre M. F. & Berger A. (2003) Marine Isotope Stage 11 as an analogue for the present interglacial, Global Planet. Change, 36, 209-217.
Tzedakis, P.C. et al. (2009) Atmospheric methane, southern European vegetation and low-mid latitude links on orbital and millennial timescales. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 277, 307-317.
Significant extra costs that may be incurred include:
Chemical preparation of samples: £2,000; Travel and subsistence to IODP Core Repository Bremen: £600; XRF scanning in Bremen: £400: Total: £3,145

Property formalisation in urban India
First supervisor:
Charlotte Lemanski
Second(other) supervisor(s):
Ann Varley
Debates on property formalisation for the urban poor are well established in Latin America. Property formalisation essentially awards poor people legal title to property they already informally own thus integrating them in the capitalist market by building an asset and securing collateral. This research extends property formalisation debates from Latin America (and to a lesser extent, Africa), to a new empirical setting: urban India. Conflicts over land ownership are not new in India, exemplified by frequent slum demolition. The unauthorised colonies that house half of Delhi population, lacking legal tenure or access to services, are currently fighting for formalisation (regularisation). This research considers Delhi 2008 regularisation drive and ongoing court cases. The research will explore how courts function to undermine and/or strengthen human rights in the context of land and housing in Delhi unauthorised colonies. Primary fieldwork in Delhi will involve interviews with unauthorised colony residents, government officials, politicians and legal actors.

The impact of eroded lake catchments on the contaminant content of biota
First supervisor:
Neil Rose
Second(other) supervisor(s):
Anson Mackay; Handong Yang
It is well known that lake and river catchments in upland areas of the UK and northern Europe have become increasingly eroded over recent decades. Catchment soils contain a store of contaminants, such as trace metals and persistent organic pollutants, a legacy of deposition from a 200-year industrial history. Catchments therefore contain a massive reservoir of contaminants with the potential to be released to surface waters. Recent research has shown that catchment soil erosion has led to enhanced metal inputs to lake basins such that the expected decline in inputs resulting from the dramatic reductions in the emissions of trace metals to the atmosphere since the 1970s is being negated.
Furthermore, the effects of predicted climate change will enhance erosive processes and elevate pollutant transfer from catchment to surface waters. The scale of the catchment storage of these deposited pollutants is such that this remobilisation could keep contaminant sediment concentrations and fluxes elevated for many decades to come. This would negate the effects of emission reductions policies, contradict the aims of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and may elevate exposure of aquatic biota. This is of particular importance as the Water Framework Directive (2008/105/EC) reaffirms the aim of the WFD to ensure that existing levels of contamination in biota and sediments will not significantly increase. However, although the input of metals is known to have increased, there is no information on whether this is being translated into elevated contamination of aquatic flora and fauna.
This study would look at the effects of this enhanced input on the ecosystems of lakes with eroded catchments to assess the scale of impact and the implications for transfer along the food chain. To do this the study would include a number of lakes with varying levels of erosion and include sediment and biotic sampling across a range of trophic levels and detailed tarce metal analysis.
Please note travel and analytical costs are likely to be significant.
References/Suggested Reading:
Rose N.L., Monteith D.T., Kettle H., Thompson R., Yang H., Muir D.C.G. (2004) A consideration of potential confounding factors limiting chemical and biological recovery at Lochnagar, a remote mountain loch in Scotland. Journal of Limology 63: 63-76.
Rothwell J.J., Robinson S.G., Evans M.G., Yang J., Allott T.E.H. (2005) Heavy metal release by peat erosion in the Peak District, southern Pennines, UK. Hydrological Processes 19: 2973-2989.
Rothwell J.J., Evans M.G., Allott T.E.H. (2007) Lead contamination of fluvial sediments in an eroding blanket peat catchment. Applied Geochemistry 22: 446-459.
Yang H., Rose N.L., Battarbee R.W., Boyle J.F. (2002) Mercury and lead budgets for Lochnagar, a Scottish mountain lake and its catchment. Environmental Science & Technology 36: 1383-1388.


Understanding early diatom changes in shallow lake sediment cores: Diatoms assemblages as early warning signs?
First supervisor:
Helen Bennion
Second(other) supervisor(s):
Carl Sayer; Iwan Jones
Diatoms are extremely sensitive to environmental changes in lakes. They have been used for decades by palaeoecologists to reconstruct past lake conditions and most recently there has been a heavy focus on the determination of former nutrient levels using transfer functions. Nonetheless, despite thousands of diatom-based palaeolimnological papers, due to a lack of parallel work on diatom ecology (other than studies of chemical preferences), it is probably true that the full palaeolimnological potential of diatoms is yet to be exploited. This may be particularly true of shallow lakes where early diatom changes in cores are often dominated by species replacements amongst periphytic taxa. Indeed, where this is the case, interpretation of diatom sequences has usually proved problematic, although such changes are probably the first warning signs of ecological degradation and it is crucial that we understand what they may indicate. Controls over periphytic diatom communities are likely to be complex, involving interactions between several variables. These factors may include water chemistry, habitat structure, grazer communities (and hence the food web) and hydrology (turbulence etc.). To improve understanding of initial changes to diatom sequences of shallow lakes, in this study we will consider the relative importance of these different controls on epiphytic diatom communities and biofilm structure. A range of approaches will be utilised to address this key aim including contemporary field studies along gradients (grazing invertebrates + nutrients), field experiments (e.g. changing diatom communities in relation to hydrological exposure) and multi-factor tank experiments. Finally, hypotheses derived from these studies will be applied to diatom core profiles from sites with known environmental changes.

Reconstruction of Quaternary climate and hydrology from non-marine ostracods developing a new approach combining palaeoecology and stable isotope geochemistry
First supervisor:
Jonathan Holmes
Second(other) supervisor(s):
Tim Atkinson (UCL Earth Sciences); Dr Dave Horne (Queen Mary, University of London)
Ostracods are microscopic, aquatic crustaceans that are common in most natural waters, including lakes. Their calcite shells are often preserved in lake sediments. Their distribution of non-marine ostracod species is determined by water temperature, ionic composition and salinity, hydrological setting and habitat type and fossil ostracod assemblages can be used to reconstruct past environment and ostracod shell provides an important source of calcite for stable isotope analysis. The oxygen-isotope composition of lacustrine carbonate is controlled by the isotopic composition of lake water and by water temperature. If the oxygen-isotope composition of lake water can be reconstructed with confidence, it is possible to derive valuable palaeoenvironmental information about water balance and catchment-scale hydrology as well as the isotopic composition of precipitation, which itself varies with atmospheric circulation. Attempts to reconstruct the past isotopic composition of lakewater are often frustrated, however, by the lack of an independent water temperature reconstruction. In this project, the student will develop a method for the reconstruction of the oxygen-isotope composition of palaeo-waters using a combination of isotope analysis of ostracod shells and other suitable materials with independent temperature estimates using the newly-developed Mutual Ostracod Temperature Range (MOTR) technique. To date, the MOTR method of palaeotemperature reconstruction has been combined with oxygen-isotope analyses of ostracod shells in just one pilot study, which was undertaken on material from Boxgrove, an important Middle Pleistocene archaeological site on the south coast of England. The results from Boxgrove are encouraging and agree well with other proxy data for the site. This pilot study therefore forms an excellent starting point for this project, from which the technique can be developed and refined. The student will first apply MOTR reconstructions and stable isotope analyses to a series of well-characterised modern non-marine sites, in order to evaluate the technique against instrumental data. Next, the approach will be applied to fossil sites from NW Europe, with emphasis on those of Lateglacial and Middle Pleistocene age. Statistical analysis of the faunal and isotopic data will be used to assess uncertainties in the water isotope reconstructions. Where site factors are favourable, we shall use the method to reconstruct the isotope composition of palaeo-precipitation and assess its palaeoclimatic significance. Ostracod MOTR estimates will be compared with published or unpublished palaeotemperature reconstructions from other biological proxies for sites where these exist. Isotope determinations will be undertaken on different species of ostracods in order to assess seasonality and offsets from isotopic equilibrium. Other biological materials, including mollusc shell, may also be used along with carbon and strontium isotope and trace-element signatures from the ostracods, where appropriate. Overall, this project will provide an exciting opportunity to develop and apply a new palaeoclimate proxy. The student will join the large, multidisciplinary Environmental Change Research Centre within the department of Geography at UCL and will receive training in ostracod taxonomy, ecology, and stable isotope analysis. He/she will be able to attend relevant advanced research training courses in palaeoenvironmental analysis held annually at UCL.
References/suggested reading:
Holmes et al., 2010, Quat. Sci. Rev. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.02.024.
Horne, 2007, Quat. Sci. Rev., 26, 1398-1415

Historical and recent salinity fluctuations in the Thurne Broads: Implications for nature conservation
First supervisor:
Jonathan Holmes
Second(other) supervisor(s):
Carl Sayer; Dan Hoare (Broads Authority); Ian Holman (Cranfield)
The Thurne Broads (including Hickling Broad, Heigham Sound, Horsey Mere and Martham South and North Broads) are a collection of shallow (<2 m), largely brackish lakes created by medieval peat cutting in the 12-14th centuries. They are key sites for nature conservation being part of the Upper Thurne Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and having status as a National Nature Reserve (NNR), EU Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Ramsar site based primarily on substantial stands of charophyte macro-algae and important populations of wetland birds. Currently these Broads have high salinities (ranging from ~1500 to 2900 mg L-1) and much evidence suggests that salinity has increased within them since at least the 1950s linked to changes in hydrology and land-use in the catchment. Indeed recent palaeolimnological research at Hickling Broad has shown an upturn in salinity possibly since dramatic sea floods in 1938. Nevertheless, the timing, magnitude and rates of salinity increases in different parts of the Thurne hydrological system remain relatively poorly understood, while the ecological implications (particularly in terms of charophyte responses) of these changes are in dispute.In the last decade, there has been a steady decline in the ecological integrity of the Thurne Broads ecosystem. In particular the Hickling Broad-Heigham Sound region has seen a recent (post-1999) and dramatic loss of its important charophyte populations. Further, in the Martham Broads recent plant surveys (2008-2009) have revealed substantial holes in formerly extensive charophyte beds, suggesting the onset of ecological decline. Local opinion holds that a substantial recent influx of saline water (in November 2007) may have induced the charophyte decline at Martham. Currently the Martham Broads possess enormous conservation value due to the substantial stands of rare and Red Data Book charophytes that they support and hence, similar to the Hickling-Heigham system, an understanding of the hydrological and salinity context to the decline is of critical importance to inform management. The aim of this project is to investigate long-term (past ~500 years) salinity changes and ecosystem responses using a combined palaeolimnological and hydrological modelling approach. The specific objectives are 1) to reconstruct the long-term salinity of the Thurne Broads system using the trace-element (especially Mg and Sr) content of the calcitic shells of ostracods, which are microcrustaceans, preserved within lake sediments 2) to calibrate the reconstructed palaeosalinity of the system using long documentary records of salinity 3) to examine spatial variations in temporal salinity patterns using multiple-core studies in each of the major Broads 4) to investigate the response of the aquatic ecosystems, especially the aquatic macrophytes (including charophytes),  using plant macrofossil analysis 5) to investigate the links between salinity, water level management and climate using a combination of historical literature, catchment water balance modelling and groundwater analytical flow equations. We have shown that ostracods are abundant and well preserved within the sediments of the Thurne Broads. Changes in the trace-element content of ostracod shells from the dated sediments from Hickling Broad show good agreement with historical changes in salinity from documentary records. This pilot study provides an invaluable proof-of-concept for the proposed studentship, which will build on the preliminary work by investigating spatial variations within the system, developing more robust palaeosalinity reconstructions, and examining the links between salinity changes and aquatic ecosystems responses using plant macrofossil analysis and hydrological modelling. The work will provide a detailed, long-term history of salinity and ecosystems change for the Thurne Broads system and template for the study of similar marginal-marine systems elsewhere. Added value will be provided by Cranfield University long established research in the Thurne on catchment, river and groundwater modelling. The project will suit students with interests in aquatic ecology/palaeoecology, aquatic conservation ecology, microfossil analysis and hydrological modelling. Appropriate training will be provided in one of more of the following as required: ostracod analysis, ostracod shell chemistry, plant macrofossil analysis, numerical analysis of palaeoecological data, palaeolimnology (UCL), and hydrological modelling (Cranfield).
References/suggested reading:
Holmes et al. (2010) Freshwater Biology 55, 2484-2498

Tropical cyclones in the climate system
First supervisor:
Chris Brierley
Second(other) supervisor(s):

Tropical cyclones (also known as hurricanes and typhoons) can have disastrous human impacts. There is substantial interest in the response of tropical cyclones to climate change in both the media and the scientific community (Knutson et al., 2010). Recent evidence suggests they may also affect the dynamics of the climate system, in part through the strong vertical mixing they cause over the ocean. This vertical mixing can be estimated from observed storms, but its role in the climate system is still uncertain – initial estimates that cyclones transport 1.5x1015 of heat towards to poles (a substantial fraction of total ocean heat transport) have not been confirmed by subsequent work. However, it has been suggested that tropical cyclones play a role in explaining the tropical changes seen in past warm climates (Fedorov et al., 2010).
The majority of the work in the field so far has involved incorporating idealized representations of tropical cyclone mixing into climate models. This has either been a constant mixing field derived from observations or a dependence on an atmospheric variable related to hurricane intensity. Neither technique really accounts for any changes in location and path that might be expected under climate change. Initially this project will involve an analysis of the small disturbances (called seeds) that can develop into cyclones under the atmospheric right conditions. Any change in number or location of the storm seed would influence how the distribution of tropical cyclones varies with climate change. This analysis will use both existing high-resolution model simulations and atmospheric reanalyses to determine how seeds are related to the climate conditions. The ultimate aim of this work is to incorporate a tropical cyclone downscaling technique into a global model that will interactively include the role of the storms in the climate system.
References/suggested reading:
Fedorov et al. 2010. Tropical cyclones and permanent El Niño in the early. Pliocene Epoch, Nature, 463, 1006.
Knutson et al. 2010. Tropical cyclones and climate change. Nature Geoscience, 3, 157-163.

Understanding the role of recent environmental change in the decline of the Madagascan Pochard Aythya innotata
First supervisor:
Viv Jones
Second(other) supervisor(s):
Steve Brooks (Natural History Museum); Geoff Hilton (Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Slimbridge)
This project is a pioneering study combining palaeolimnological techniques with the conservation of  the globally endangered Madagascan Pochard. It will involve field work in Madagascar. Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot. Endemism is extremely high, but rates of ecological degradation are extremely high too. The freshwater wetlands of Madagascar are particularly threatened. Extensive deforestation has caused high rates of soil erosion. The Madagascar Pochard Aythya innotata, is an endemic diving duck that was believed extinct until a small population was rediscovered in 2006 from a single lake in the highlands of northern Madagascar where a breeding programme has been established.  Managers need to understand the bird’s requirements and baseline conditions for lakes in the area.
•    Assess impacts of recent environmental change on Pochard populations
•    Determine ecological attributes of sites suitable for re-introduction of the Pochard.
•    Palaeolimnological techniques will be used to assess changes in lake ecosystems over the last 150 years using short sediment (0.5 to 1.0 m) cores from a spectrum of lakes
•    Past changes in sedimentation rate, will be assessed from 210Pb dated cores.
•    Changes in the invertebrate community structure will be assessed by analysing the abundance and diversity of  Chironomidae.
•    Changes in terrestrial vegetation will be reconstructed by pollen analysis.
•    Diatoms analysis will be used to indicate changes in trophic status and pH of the lakes.
References/suggested reading:
Bennion, H., Battarbee, R.W., Sayer, C.D., Simpson, G.L., and Davidson, T.A. (2011) Defining reference conditions and restoration targets for lake ecosystems using palaeolimnology: a synthesis. Journal of Paleolimnology 45(4), 533–544.