PhD Scholarship - Ecosystem resilience to pathogens: Understanding the interplay between pathogen host shifts and coevolutionary dynamics

The University of Queensland (UQ) and the University of Exeter are seeking an exceptional student for this PhD Scholarship: Ecosystem resilience to pathogens: Understanding the interplay between pathogen host shifts and coevolutionary dynamics as part of the QUEX Institute. This joint PhD scholarship provides a fantastic opportunity for a talented doctoral student to work closely with a world class research group and benefit from the combined expertise and facilities offered at the two institutions. The successful applicant will have the chance to study in Australia and the UK, and will graduate with a joint degree from The University of Queensland and the University of Exeter.

In addition to this project, a further six UQ-based projects are available, along with seven Exeter-based projects.


Project details

Ecosystem resilience to pathogens: Understanding the interplay between pathogen host shifts and coevolutionary dynamics

Project team Project description Preferred academic background


Dr Jan Engelstaedter


Dr Ben Longdon


Ecosystems are constantly faced with a critical environmental hazard: infectious diseases. This is because many pathogens do not only attack a single species but several species within an ecosystem. A major source of emerging infectious diseases in humans, wildlife and agriculture are host shifts, where pathogens jump between host species. To assess ecosystem resilience to the threat of invading pathogens, an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of host range evolution and its consequences is vital.

In this project, we will make important steps towards this goal by investigating the interplay between host shift dynamics and host-pathogen coevolution. Host shifts are often studied as purely ecological or epidemiological processes. Conversely, host-pathogen coevolution is typically studied within a single host species. Our proposed research will combine these two aspects into a single framework. This is important because adaptations and counter-adaptations of hosts and pathogens will be a major determinant of the likelihood of a host shift being successful.

Our project will have a theoretical and an experimental component that mutually benefit each other. In the theoretical part, to be performed at UQ under the supervision of Dr Engelstaedter, the PhD candidate will develop mathematical models of ecosystems consisting of several host and pathogen species. The models will explore how coevolution is expected to affect a pathogen’s host range, prevalence and how this feeds into the stability of the ecosystem. In the experimental part of the project, to be performed at the University of Exeter under Dr Ben Longdon’s supervision, the PhD candidate will carry out empirical work with bacteriophages (viruses) and their bacterial hosts. This system has many advantages that make high-throughput experimental evolution studies feasible, and the phages have an extremely broad host range (infecting both gram positive and negative bacteria) that make them ideally suited to study host shifts. The experiments will be the first to investigate how coevolution with their hosts will affect a pathogen’s ability to infect other hosts. The experiments will also test whether coevolution with a pathogen will affect a host’s susceptibility to new pathogens.

Our project is expected to make major contributions to our understanding of the factors underlying pathogen host shifts between species in an ecosystem. This in turn will help us understand and ultimately predict the emergence of infectious diseases.

A bachelor’s degree with first class honours or a coursework master’s degree and an overall GPA (grade point average) equivalent to 5.65 on the 7-point UQ scale, which includes a relevant research component.

The ideal applicant has a background in evolutionary biology, population genetics, ecology and/or microbiology. Applicants with a strong quantitative background (e.g. a degree in mathematics or physics) are also encouraged to apply.

The successful applicant for this project will enrol through The University of Queensland's School of Biological Sciences.

Questions about this project should be directed to Dr Jan Engelstaedter


These scholarships include a living stipend of AUD $27,596 (2019) tax free, indexed annually, tuition fees and Overseas Student Health Cover (where applicable). A travel grant of AUD $8,500 per annum, and a training grant of AUD $3,000 are also available over the program.

How to apply

These scholarships attract a large number of applications and are therefore highly competitive. The are several steps involved in the application process, and these are outlined below. Please note this process is for the UQ-based projects. The Exeter-based projects have a different process.

  1. Expression of Interest: To be considered for this program, you must complete an Expression of Interest via the link below.
  2. Shortlisting: The project team will review all Expressions of Interest received. They may contact you at this stage to request more information or to have an informal discussion about your suitability for the project.
  3. Interview: The project team will nominate the two most suitable applicants for each project (or only one if they prefer), and these applicants will be invited to attend a formal interview. As there are seven UQ-based projects, a maximum of 14 applicants will be interviewed.
  4. Invitation to apply: The applicants who were interviewed will be ranked. The top five ranked interviewees will be invited to submit a full application, providing they have applied for five different projects. If two applicants have expressed interest in the same project, the lower ranked applicant of the two will not proceed, and the applicant with the next highest ranking for a different project will be invited to apply instead.
  5. Assessment of application: If you are invited to submit a full application, this is the point at which you will be assessed for eligibility to enter the PhD program. To avoid delays at this point, you should familiarise yourself with the program requirements including evidence of relevant research experience and English language proficiency prior to submitting an Expression of Interest.
  6. Commencement: Successful applicants will commence at The University of Queensland in Research Quarter 1 (January, 2020).

Expressions of interest are open until 20 May, 2019.

Submit an expression of interest

Questions? Contact the Graduate School.