PhD Position in Environmental Science

ETH Zürich


PhD Position in Environmental Science

100%, Zurich, fixed-term

The Ecosystem Management group at ETH Zurich, working together with the Sustainable Agroecosystems group, is seeking to fill a 4-year PhD position to understand changes in greenhouse gas emissions from organic-rich soils along a woodland restoration chronosequence. Field work will be in Scotland where native woodlands are being planted on organic-rich soils. Little is known about how native woodland establishment on these soils affects soil microbiota and belowground processes, or the extent to which such changes affect greenhouse gas emissions from soils. The results will have relevance to woodland expansion and climate mitigation policies in Scotland and to a broader understanding of how increasing woodland cover on organic-rich soils in northern climates affects greenhouse gas balances.

Project background

Organic soils are essential and major stores of carbon in both temperate and tropical regions. The substantial interest in, and expansion of, forest restoration schemes driven by the desire to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration has led to substantial areas of organic-rich soils to be planted with trees. This is especially the case in upland regions of Scotland which has some of the most extensive organic-rich soils in Western Europe. Native woodland restoration as well as commercial tree plantations have been established on these soils, including on both deep (>50cm) and shallow (<50 cm) peat. The impact of such woodland establishment on soil biota and structure, and consequently on soil greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes, is largely unknown, but could potentially undermine the putative benefits of biomass accumulation in aboveground woody vegetation.

We aim to investigate the seasonality and (a)biotic drivers of soil greenhouse gas fluxes in forest restoration areas on organic-rich soils in Scotland. The response of soil CO2, N2O, and CH4 fluxes to woodland establishment and growth over a restoration chronosequence will be studied over the course of one year to encompass seasonal variations. We will also evaluate soil CO2, N2O, and CH4 fluxes under different vegetation covers, including different woodland and forest types in primarily peaty soils in upland regions of Scotland. Functional microbial gene analysis of nitrifiers and denitrifiers will identify the active soil microbial pathways producing soil N2O. Additional research might investigate changes in mycorrhizal communities along a restoration chronosequence. Using linear mixed modelling, the project will quantify the relationship between abiotic and biotic drivers. Using the resulting data we will undertake spatially explicit modelling of expected changes in GHG fluxes across a range of soil and woodland cover combinations. There is the possibility of undertaking bulk soil N isotope analysis of soil and plant biomass to provide insights into soil nitrogen turnover and the openness of nitrogen cycling.

The research has broader relevance in that, due to climate change, we expect to see a northern expansion of woodlands onto peaty soils at the northernmost margins of their distributions, with implications for soil GHG emissions. Research undertaken on organic-rich soils in Scotland can therefore provide insights into larger-scale processes that could unfold in the coming decades.

Job description

The position requires field and laboratory research in the field of soil and forest science. You will sample greenhouse gas emissions from soils under different vegetation covers at locations in the Highlands of Scotland over the course of one year. Samples will be returned to Zurich where they will be analysed for greenhouse gasses, namely carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. Work on microbial changes in soil will require molecular analyses of microbial functional groups.

There is also the opportunity to supervise Masters student projects as part of the research programme.

Your profile

We are seeking candidates with the following interests, skills, and expertise:

  • Strong interest and experience in soil science
  • Molecular skills and good laboratory competencies
  • Working in remote field locations
  • Good quantitative analytical skills including, for example, multiple regression and Structural Equation Modelling
  • Excellent communication and independent working abilities.

Additionally, we are seeking candidates who are:

  • interested in landscape management approaches to climate mitigation
  • flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances
  • able to manage and coordinate their research activities
  • able to work as part of a team


Your workplace

We offer

The Ecosystem Management group undertakes inter- and transdisciplinary research across a range of geographical locations and research topics. Disciplinary research is set in the context of complex socio-ecological landscapes, which allows researchers to ensure that their research is grounded in policy and land management realities. You will therefore be working alongside several other researchers from whom there will be opportunities to learn and exchange ideas across a wide range of environmental issues.

The group also provides opportunities for personal and professional development, through training courses, chances to contribute to teaching and field courses, and seminar programmes. The collaboration with the Sustainable Agroecosystems group provides further opportunities to interact with the broader research community at ETH Zurich.

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We value diversity

In line with our values, ETH Zurich encourages an inclusive culture. We promote equality of opportunity, value diversity and nurture a working and learning environment in which the rights and dignity of all our staff and students are respected. Visit our Equal Opportunities and Diversity website to find out how we ensure a fair and open environment that allows everyone to grow and flourish.

Curious? So are we.

We look forward to receiving your online application with the following documents:

  • Motivation letter explaining your experience and suitability for the position, and your motivation for doing a PhD.
  • A CV detailing education and training, previous work experience, and any publications.
  • Names and addresses of at least two references.

Please note that we exclusively accept applications submitted through our online application portal. Applications via email or postal services will not be considered.

The position will remain open until a suitable candidate is found. We expect to hold interviews at the end of October or early November, and expect the position to start in January 2024.

Further information about the Department of Environmental Systems Science and the Ecosystem Management group can be found on our website. Questions regarding the position should be directed to Prof. Jaboury Ghazoul, email: (no applications).

About ETH Zürich

ETH Zurich is one of the world’s leading universities specialising in science and technology. We are renowned for our excellent education, cutting-edge fundamental research and direct transfer of new knowledge into society. Over 30,000 people from more than 120 countries find our university to be a place that promotes independent thinking and an environment that inspires excellence. Located in the heart of Europe, yet forging connections all over the world, we work together to develop solutions for the global challenges of today and tomorrow.

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