Thursday, July 7, 2011

PhD Positions at The University of Melbourne’s Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science


The University of Melbourne’s Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science in partnership with the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) have established a new $10M research program that will examine the effects of climate, management, and disturbances on forest ecosystem processes at landscape scales.

We seek expressions of interest from prospective PhD students in the following research areas:

- Forest Biodiversity: quantify relationships between future fire regimes and risks to forest biodiversity (particularly fauna), structure and function.
- Forest Water: help identify key threats to future water security from forested catchments.
- Forest Carbon: contribute to mechanistic understanding of carbon stocks and fluxes in forested landscapes, including how carbon cycling varies with forest type, disturbance, and climate.
- Forest Vulnerability:improve understanding of how forest species and ecosystems respond to disturbance, management and climate.
- Forest Socio-Economic: impact of wildfires on community safety

All PhD projects will involve field-based, experimental and modelling approaches, and will benefit from the team-based approach and considerable infrastructure underpinning the broader program. Students will receive a laptop computer, access to research assistance, and support for conference and training opportunities.

Project partners

University of Melbourne, Department of Sustainability and Environment


Creswick and/or Melbourne, Victoria


Ten top-up scholarships valued at $10,000 p.a. each are available as part of a new research programme by the University of Melbourne and the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE).

Expressions of interest

Expressions of interest are sought from enthusiastic and dedicated, First Class or 2A Honours students. All expressions of interest should include a 500 word personal statement outlining which research area is of interest to you, a detailed CV, transcript of all academic degrees and contact details for two referees.

Ideally applicants will be excited about field-based ecological research. Selected students will be encouraged to apply for a Postgraduate Scholarship to cover living expenses (2011 rate - $22,800 p.a.), which we will top up by a further $10,000 per yearfor each of three years (Total - $32,800 p.a. tax free). Note: applications for postgraduate scholarships close 31st August 2011 for international applicants and 31st October 2011 for local applicants (AUS citizens and permanent residents) – see

Expressions of interest are to be submitted by no later than 15 August 2011.

Applications and General Enquiries:
Sharnie Bilston
Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science
University of Melbourne
Phone: 03 5321 4321

Further information on the University of Melbourne, Department of Forest Ecosystem Science is available at

Forest Biodiversity: Prospective PhD projects

In order to manage both human assets and biodiversity, The Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment and Parks Victoria plan to institute a program of extensive, planned fires across Victoria (Landscape Mosaic Burns). Due to substantial knowledge gaps and associated assumptions about the effect of large scale planned burning on biodiversity, research is urgently required to inform current and future fire management. As south-eastern Australia is one of the most fire-prone environments in the world, it is essential that we better understand the role of fire in shaping our landscapes and the biodiversity that they support.

The Forest and Fire Ecology Research Group is developing long-term biodiversity research projects that will help land managers refine their present and future fire management strategies. These multi-disciplinary projects aim to address the following research questions:

  • What are the relationships between different fire regimes, biodiversity (vertebrate & invertebrate animals, vascular & non-vascular plants) and ecosystem processes (e.g. pollination, herbivory, movement and dispersal, reproduction, competition, predation, decomposition and nutrient cycling)?
  • How does the extent, composition and spatial configuration of habitats (landscape state and condition) influence biodiversity & ecosystem processes?
  • What are the relationships between vegetation structural complexity and biodiversity, particularly in regard to defined components of the fire regime (fire interval & frequency, fire severity etc.)?

PhD projects will be developed within this framework and will involve studies of both individual species and interactions between species. Projects will sit within an integrated and multi-disciplinary framework and therefore benefit from a team-based approach with its substantial logistic and operational support.

Contact: Alan York,, 03 5321 4270

Forest Water: Prospective PhD projects

Quantifying the ecological and hydrologic functioning of our forested landscapes is of greater importance than ever given the threats and uncertainties arising from climate change, fire, increased demand from expanding populations and the need for environmental flows and high water quality for aquatic habitats. These PhD programs will contribute to a larger project on developing and refining models of key relationships between water security and the range of internal and external conditions that landscapes experience. Emphasis will be on quantifying the risks in future of dryness, higher temperature, fire and CO2 concentration and how these relate to forest structure, water use and health.

These risks can lead to hydrologic changes that have profound implications for the survival and distribution of plant communities, streamflow and water quality. Bio-physical processes to be measured and modelled include evapotranspiration at plant, stand and catchment scales, and surface and sub-surface fluxes of water, sediment and nutrients.

Areas in which PhD candidates could contribute include:

  • comparative ecology and hydrology of eucalypt species under a range of environmental conditions, including drought and projected climate change
  • effect of nutrient loss from post-fire erosion on stand recovery and evapotranspiration
  • long term hydrologic response from fire-affected eucalypt forests
  • remote sensing of forest structure and evapotranspiration over space and time
  • hydrologic functioning of fire-affected trees in relation to fire severity, species and age
  • scaling runoff, sediment and nutrient dynamics following disturbance across spatial and temporal scales

The successful candidates would join the Forests and Water research group within the Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science, which currently consists of 18 scientists, technical staff and post graduate students. Research areas are broadly categorised as: forest water use and streamflow dynamics; post-fire hydrology in a changing environment; geomorphic processes in forest environments; and forest disturbance, erosion processes and water quality. We use a combination of field based experimentation and modelling in our research, and have a number of long-term research sites in mountain forests.

For further information on the Forests and Water research group please see:

Contact: Patrick Lane,, 03 8344 0738

Forest Carbon: Prospective PhD projects

Forest ecosystems are the most important sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide in the terrestrial biosphere, absorbing up to 80% of total sequestered carbon. Australia’s 150 M ha of forests and plantations contribute significantly to mitigating carbon dioxide emissions, and the national carbon accounting system incorporates the effects of land use and land-use change. While we have reasonably accurate estimates of carbon storage in forest biomass, there remains considerable uncertainty around storage in forest soils, total rates of sequestration per year, and how sequestration is influenced by a changing climate (hotter and drier), by natural disturbances (fire or extreme weather events) and by forest management (prescribed burning, harvesting). It is also uncertain to what degree reforestation, both as timber plantations and environmental plantings, can be used for effective long-term carbon sequestration.

PhD projects in this theme will contribute to a better mechanistic understanding of carbon stocks and fluxes in forest ecosystems in south-eastern Australia. The projects will advance our understanding of how carbon cycling varies with forest type, disturbance regimes and climate, and will contribute to evidence-based policies and management of forests in Victoria.

Prospective projects include:

  • Factors controlling the carbon balance of eucalypt ecosystems: This project will provide insights into the processes controlling ecosystem carbon balance in eucalypt forests of south-eastern Australia, with emphasis on responses to climate. The research will be field-based, mainly at the Wombat Flux research site near the University’s Creswick Campus
  • Automated sensing of forest canopy structure for interpreting forest carbon dynamics: Canopy structure variables, like leaf area index (LAI), strongly influence the magnitude and timing of many components of the forest carbon cycle, but these relationships remain under-described for eucalypt forests. This project will use emerging technology to better describe LAI and forest carbon changes across a range of conditions, with the view to bridging the gap between field-based and remotely sensed measures for predicting forest carbon dynamics at landscape scales.
  • Effects of fire on forest soil carbon: As the use of planned burning is set to increase in Victoria’s forests, the effects of multiple burns on carbon and nutrient cycles must be better understood to sustain forest ecosystem services. Using a diversity of field sites and experimental treatments, this project will focus on planned burning impacts on forest floor processes, including litter decomposition and the formation of soil carbon fractions (e.g. particulate, humus and char carbon).
  • Carbon and nutrient processes in biodiverse environmental plantings: Biodiverse, environmental plantings are required to restore many vital ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, to cleared landscapes. Utilising a range of sites across Victoria, this project will address critical knowledge gaps around carbon in biodiverse plantings including tree growth and survival, species-specific effects on litter and soil carbon fractions, and long-term carbon security including resilience to disturbances like fire.
  • Forest carbon stores and uncertainties: National and international carbon reporting requires robust methods to quantify forest carbon stores and associated uncertainties. This project will utilise existing and new forest inventory data encompassing a range of forest conditions to identify key predictors of carbon stores in forests (including fire history variables), and to examine various mechanisms for interpreting and communicating uncertainty.

Contact: Lauren Bennett,, 03 5321 4192

Forest Vulnerability: Prospective PhD projects

Climate change is predicted to have significant influences on forests at multiple scales. Climate change directly affects the functions of individual organisms (growth and behaviour), modifies populations (size and structure), affects ecosystem structure and function (nutrient cycling, water flow, species composition), and the distribution of ecosystems within landscapes. The macro distribution of vegetation is most commonly determined by climate; however, complex interactions between climate, biophysical variables and disturbances create a mosaic of forest ecosystems at finer scales. Change in climate is expected to shift the distribution of species along environmental gradients. Historically, plants, mammals and insects adjusted their ranges independently to meet their individual climatic requirements resulting in an ebb and flow of forest species across landscapes resulting in the formation of new ecosystems as climate changed. Climate is changing at a rate far greater than flora and fauna have ever experienced which will force species to adapt, migrate, or perish. This research program aims to determine which species are vulnerable to climate change, disturbances and management. Most importantly, this research aims to identify the causal factors associated with forest vulnerability.

Prospective PhD research areas:

  • Ecology of key forest species of Victoria: will research the ecology of forest species at different life stages - regeneration, growth, competition, reproduction, dispersal, phenology and how these factors relate to climate and edaphic variability. Research will support the development and parameterisation of the TACA and SORTIE-ND models.
  • Significance of edaphic factors in determining the distribution, health and productivity of forest species: will quantify the range of soil moisture and soil nutrition that forest species tolerate, and how these factors may change as a result of changes in climate.
  • Identifying species-climate relations in the high elevation forest ecosystems of Victoria: will focus on dendrochronology and ancillary methods and analysis techniques to investigate the response of forest species to recent and past climate.
  • The adaptive capacity of key forest species to disturbance and climate variability and change: will focus on the role that phenotypic plasticity and genetic variation will play in shaping species responses to the impacts of climate change.
  • Forest health agents that affect forest species: will aim to quantify the effect that biotic and abiotic agents have on forest species health and vitality and also to quantify their relationship to forest structure and climate.
  • The role of past, current and future climates and disturbances on species distributions across Victoria: will involve the parameterisation and use of the LANDIS-II model for use in Victoria.
  • Impacts of climate change and disturbances on the ecosystems of Victoria and alternative management strategies for adapting and mitigating climate change impacts: will involve the use and development of appropriate ecological models and will work in collaboration with other research areas.

Contact: Craig Nitschke,, 03 9250 6855

Please quote on your application when applying for this scholarship

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