PhD students at RBGE
RBGE hosts around 20 PhD students working on topics across the range of the Garden’s interests – from biogeography, conservation and genomics to floras and horticulture. The students make use of the exceptional Living Collections, the Herbarium, Library and laboratories.
Getting a place
PhD students based at RBGE are registered at a range of universities worldwide and across the UK, and follow the entry requirements and assessment procedures of the university they are registered with. Supervisors at the degree-awarding university may be very involved in the project, or may take a more back seat role. RBGE staff should be able to advise on university partners for self-designed projects. If you have an idea of what you would like to work on, contact a staff member to discuss the project. PhDs at RBGE are also listed at https://www.findaphd.com/.
Information on funding for prospective University of Edinburgh students can be found here. RBGE students from overseas are often are funded by scholarships from their home countries, but many of our students are registered at the University of Edinburgh through their Doctoral training Programs (E4 and EastBio) or Darwin Fellowships.
- Lucia Campos
I joined RBGE in spring 2016 for an MSc internship in the Kidner lab. Before then, I had only been familiarised with research on model plant species, and I wanted to apply genetic studies on non-model, more interesting plant groups. I found out about the research done at RBGE and in Dr. Kidner's lab and I instantly became curious about the evolutionary history of Begonia. During my first five months here, I did a small QTL study on epidermal cells using a Begonia mapping population and their genetic map. I applied to do a PhD in the same lab because I loved the working environment (and the plant collections!). During my PhD at RBGE and the University of Edinburgh (2016-2020) I researched the role of repetitive and transposable DNA in the evolution of the genus Begonia. RBGE is a brilliant place study plant diversity and evolution, with a great scientific environment to learn from many world-leading plant experts, and working here has definitely had a great impact on my career. Currently, my work is still associated to the scientific team at RBGE as I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh and the Darwin Tree of Life project.
- Meng Lu
Genomics of hybridisation in British native flowering plants
I am broadly interested in plant evolution and diversification. I got my BSc in Biological Sciences from Sichuan University in 2018. During my undergrad, I participated in a 15-month exchange programme at the University of Washington, where I was trained in plant systematics and did my dissertation on the same subject. I did my MRes in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation at the Imperial College London, collaborating with the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. My PhD project aims to evaluate the extent and consequences of natural hybridisation in the British native plants. I’ll investigate the post-glacial introgression at a flora scale.
- Kelly T. Bocanegra González
Understanding the colonization of the Chocó biogeographic region: a case study using Inga (Leguminosae)
Before joining RBGE and the UoE in summer 2020 my research was focused on the genetic conservation and restoration of tropical tree species in South America. Currently, as part of the Kidner lab, I am working on understanding the history of the Chocó biogeographic region flora (one of the most diverse areas on earth) producing a wide phylogeny of the genus Inga (Leguminosae) and population-level analysis of several of its species. This is a case study to investigate migratory routes that have contributed to the diversity of the Chocó, as well as temporal patterns of diversification and distribution.
- Wu Huang
Nuclear DNA barcoding and plant diversification
My project is based on understanding the nature of genetic differences between species, and to use this information to inform the design of a high resolution nuclear DNA barcodes in plants. Specifically, I am using the rapidly growing body of nuclear DNA sequences, such as data from RAD-Seq, Target Capture, GBS-seq, and WGS, to understand the genomic nature of differences between plant species.
I enjoy coding, mainly in python, R, and Linux, to develop pipelines and software using genomic data to assist evolutionary researches. I am also engaged in bridging academia with public sector, i.e. solve real world problems such as biodiversity loss.
- Natalia Contreras Ortiz
Phylogeography and adaptive genomic variation of Guazuma
I am a tropical botanist and researcher interested in the evolution and biogeography of Neotropical plant species. My research as a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh (RBGE), is focused in Guazuma, a representative of the Theobromeae tribe within the family Malvaceae. As a widely distributed and ecological generalist adapted to a range of water limited conditions, from seasonally dry forests to riparian forests, Guazuma possesses the genetic toolbox available to explore the genes and pathways regulating drought-induced responses. The aim of my project is to understand how evolutionary processes have determine the biogeographical patterns of diversity of Guazuma across its distribution as well as the adaptive genomics of drought by Identifying loci displaying selection signatures in correlation with environmental variables. Understanding the physiological and genetic responses of wild tropical plants is important to comprehend ecosystem dynamics. This might help to predict responses at the tree level and will contribute to our knowledge of molecular mechanisms not only in similar neotropical species, but also in other representatives across the tribe Theobromeae that includes rain forest restricted genera, including the economically important source of chocolate, Theobroma cacao.
- Junru Wang
The sex determination and dimorphism in the male and female flowers of Begonia
I began my PhD project in RBGE and the University of Edinburgh in April, 2021. Before I came here, I finished my MSc project in Northwest A&F University in China. My former projects are about morphology and phylogeny of Rosaceae, and I knew my current supervisor Dr. Ronse De Craene when I did a morphological study of Sanguisorba. I joined the big group of Begoniaceae when I came here. Impressed by the high morphological diversity of the family, I selected several representative species to study the floral ontogeny and dimorphism. Besides, I’m also planning to do some genetic work which I have never done before, to find out the factors which cause the sex differentiation. I am funded by the Darwin Trust of UoE.
- Jess Rickenback
Savannas at the forest boundary: an understudied biome at risk
I am a PhD student researching ecology and functional traits among savanna species from Africa to Southeast Asia. Broadly I am interested in the ecology, biogeography, and evolutionary history of savanna systems, especially those which receive high rainfall. These have historically received little attention and have often been misclassified as degraded forests, which makes them vulnerable to afforestation and fire suppression. In Southeast Asia, my fieldwork focuses on Cambodia where I investigate how ground layer diversity both in terms of species and functional groupings aligns with light availability in order to determine the resilience of these ecosystems to structural change. To investigate the historical assemblage of savanna systems, and associations between functional traits and biomes, I use the woody genus Ziziphus (Rhamnaceae), which spans across Africa, Asia and Australasia. Ziziphus is a good fit for this question as, despite being a small genus, it is found across continents where it manages to occupy savanna, rainforest, and desert. I use phylogenetics to try and unpick the secret behind its diversity, and ascertain whether traits enable occupation of novel biomes or whether the pressures of new environments prompted trait adaptations.
- Ellen Heimpel
Africa’s Exceptional Monodominant Forest
I am a PhD student at RGBE and the University of Edinburgh studying monodominant forests in the Congo Basin. Tropical forests are the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems on earth. However, in the forests of central Africa, there is a species of tree, Gilbertiodendron dewevrei, that forms stands in which up to 80% of the trees belong to this one species, overturning every stereotype of plant diversity in the tropics.
My research focuses on examining these exceptional monodominant Gilbertiodendron forests and asking what the current distribution of this forest type is, and how this might change in the future. I am looking at their species composition in comparison to adjacent mixed species forest, mapping out their current extent, and asking whether they are expanding or contracting. I will also look at modelling how their distribution may change in the future, under different climatic conditions, and different trajectories of forest loss. Predicting expansion or contraction of this monodominant forest over the next 50 -100 years will be crucial for modelling the Congo Basin block for carbon storage and biodiversity, as G. dewevrei forest has higher carbon stocks and lower species diversity than mixed species forest.
- Mathew Rees
Unexplored transitions between forests and savannas in Africa
I originally trained as a botanical horticulturist, focusing on using ex-situ plant collections for research and conservation. I joined RBGE in 2018 on the MSc in Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants. This was an amazing course and really motivated me to pursue research in tropical environments. My dissertation combined morphometric, ecological and population genomic data to study the taxonomy of the national tree of Brazil (Paubrasilia echinata). Currently I am a PhD candidate in the E4 DTP, where my research consists in exploring the floristic, structural and functional thresholds that are involved in the transitions between forests and savannas. My geographical focus is on Africa where these two environments represent over 60% of the land surface and provide ecosystem services to over 200 million people. Specifically my fieldwork is carried out in Angola, one of the least botanically explored countries in Africa, and which represents a region that will be subjected to strong environmental change in the near future according to prediction from the IPCC. Without ground-truth data, it will not be possible to accurately predict how climate change will impact these two biomes and what the consequences will be for the people that live and depend on these resources.
- Lucy Turnbull
Do duplicated genes drive morphological diversity?
I am a plant geneticist interested in applying biotechnological methods to new problems. Before starting my PhD, I completed my MBiol at the University of York and further pursued my interest in genetics by working for a plant biotechnology company. The aim of my project in the Kidner group is to utilise CRISPR technology to knock out duplicated genes in several begonia species and assess their morphological impact. This will help us understand how gene functions diverge after duplication. I am mainly based at the King’s Buildings at the University of Edinburgh optimising Begonia tissue culture, transformation and CRISPR editing.
- Gustavo Ramos
The Andira clade: case studies in the evolution of the legume flower and taxonomy of Amazon trees
I have initiated my early studies in botany on the taxonomy and floristics of tropical legumes in Brazil. Soon after, I started to study the molecular phylogenetics of the Amazonian legume Aldina, which phylogenetic position were still unresolved and enigmatic. Aldina bears radially symmetric flowers and is nested in the Andira clade comprised by the zygomorphic Andira and Hymenolobium. My research at RBGE aims to investigate candidate genes involved in the determination of flower symmetry in florally heterogeneous groups of legumes such as the Andira clade. My work involves sequencing the whole genome of target species and experiments on RNA-seq to compare orthologs differentially expressed in those groups. My project also covers the taxonomy of the genus Aldina, where I revise all species of the genus to provide a comprehensive monograph with species descriptions, distribution maps, identification keys, illustrations, and colour plates.
- Cornelia Simon Nutbrown
Using conservation genetics and distribution modelling to inform conservation management of Scotland’s maerl beds
My PhD is a collaborative project between the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, NatureScot and the Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science and Technology, Heriot-Watt University.
My research is focussed on maerl - a type of algae- which probably makes me one of very few marine biologists at RBGE! Maerl is a free-living coraline algae (it looks like coral) which aggregates on the seafloor to form complex structures known as ‘beds’. These beds are biodiversity hot-spots supporting many rare and endemic species and providing nursery habitats for many commercially important species such as scallops and hake in Scotland. Maerl beds are also important sources of Blue Carbon. Maerl beds are endanger globally and are protected in Scotland in Marine Protected Areas and Special Areas of Conservation.
The aim of my project is to inform maerl conservation management in Scotland. To do this I am combining whole genome sequencing of Scottish maerl species, population genetics and species distribution and climate modelling. Investigating the species present in Scottish maerl beds, their genetic connectivity and life history is greatly informative for better understanding maerl and therefore making good conservation management decisions. Similarly, computer modelling has been used to get a better understanding of the distribution maerl beds in Scotland and how this will be affected by climate change.
I hope that the findings of my PhD research will be able to influence more targeted and informed conservation management strategies for maerl beds in Scotland.
- Yanqian Ding
Resolving taxonomic complexity in diploid and tetraploid British eyebrights (Euphrasia)
I started my PhD in 2019 with Alex Twyford and Peter Hollingsworth in the University of Edinburgh and RBGE. Before then, I finished my MSc in Zhejiang University, China. Since MSc, I’m working on population genetics, biogeography, and demographic history. I’m always interested in wild plants because I love to explore them in the field and inspired by how they evolved during the long history. I’m also fascinated by the beauty and complexity of evolutionary process. In my PhD project, I’m focused on what caused the genetic complexity in British Eyebright (Euphrasia), from population genetics, migration history and local adaptation.
- Elliot Convery-Fisher
I am a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. My research explores the socio-ecological dynamics of fire in the central highlands of Madagascar.
I focus on fire in tapia woodlands. Tapia woodlands are open-canopy woodlands dominated by squat trees that possess a range of impressive adaptations to frequent fire. The most obvious feature is tapia’s bark that resembles crocodile-skin and is spongey to the touch. However, the topic of fire is controversial in Madagascar due to fire’s perceived negative effects; these have led to tree planting and fire suppression policies, which threaten the future of tapia. Through my PhD, I aim to develop an understanding of how fire maintains biodiversity and supports local livelihoods. To do so, I use a mixture of natural and social science methods to examine the interactions between the social role that fire plays in rural livelihoods and the ecological role of fire in tapia woodland function. Fire use is declining in the central highlands and it is vital to understand why this is happening and how this may influence fire-dependent vegetation.
I work in collaboration with a Malagasy NGO, Ny-Tanintsika, who seek to improve the lives of rural Malagasy communities whilst protecting the tapia woodlands. Ny-Tanintsika achieve this by supporting rural silk farming in tapia woodlands for sale to domestic and international visitors. Therefore, providing a financial incentive to protect tapia. My research will further the progress of this industry to support conservation and development in Madagascar.
Supervisors: Dr Caroline Lehmann (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh), Dr Sam Staddon (University of Edinburgh).
- Jack Baker
I am a PhD student studying the impact of the Garden’s living and preserved collections on the climate and biodiversity crises. This project is a collaboration between the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and The University of Edinburgh.
The project will critically examine the way that RBGE’s collection is used to impact policy and practice nationally and internationally, and hopes ultimately to provide recommendations on how RBGE's collection can be used to impact conservation and climate outcomes more effectively, contributing to the wider discourse and practice surrounding environmental policymaking and the crucial role botanic garden collections can play in this.
Having previously completed an interdisciplinary MSc in Conservation Studies at the University of St Andrews, I am interested in science communication and how we can ensure that conservation work is being conducted in the most effective and appropriate way.
I am a passionate speaker and conservation educator, and I work for both the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I am also the creator of Pangolin: The Conservation Podcast, a show which celebrates the stories of underappreciated species and amplifies the voices of underrepresented groups.
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