PhD Studentship: Engineer Crop Behaviours to Respond to Extreme Climatic Conditions

University of Sheffield

Lead Supervisor: Dr. Sihan Li, Department of Geography

Co-Supervisors: Prof. Julie Gray, School of Biosciences; Dr. Julie Jones, Department of Geography

Enquiries: [email protected]

Keywords: climate change, droughts, engineering crop behaviours, water use efficiency, carbon emission reduction

Background: Freshwater resources are essential for human consumption, energy provision, and food production, making them a critical component of society. However, water shortages can occur due to hydrological variability like droughts, or human activities such as pollution and over-abstraction. These shortages can lead to food insecurities, which can severely impact human wellbeing, especially for the poor who are less capable of handling such crises. Climate change can exacerbate the stress on water availability/quality, as well as cause extreme weather events like floods and droughts with severe environmental and socioeconomic consequences. Consequently, climate change is likely to increase the risk of food insecurities, especially in areas with limited water resources, high poverty rates, and rapidly growing populations (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia).

Aims/Methods: The aim of this project is to deliver new understandings of the current drought-sensitive, at-risk agricultural regions given the ongoing (compounding and cascading) drought conditions, and to deliver insights on further lab-based experiments needed to study crop behaviours and yields under ‘blackswan’ (1-in-100 year and beyond) and novel (not seen as yet, but projected to occur in the future) extreme climatic conditions, that society is less-if at all-prepared for.

The project will use a combination state-of-the-art Earth System Model outputs and lab experiment results on drought-tolerant crops, which involves mathematical modelling of data obtained from precision gene edited crops (wheat, rice, soybean and maize), to understand the climatic impacts of reducing agricultural water use. The project will also calculate and predict the extent to which increased crop drought tolerance and a reduced requirement for irrigation could achieve, in terms of reduction in water use, increase in the ability to mitigate the impacts of severe weather events, and decrease in associated carbon emissions. Finally the project will deliver designs of additional lab experiments needed to understand crop behaviours under ‘blackswan’ and novel extreme climatic conditions, and to disseminate findings to relevant academic partners and stakeholders.

Research direction will be guided by the student and could evolve in different directions depending on interest.

Candidate requirements

This project would suit someone with a keen interest in climate change, water and food security, and excellent quantitative analysis and communication skills. Enthusiasm for (preferable experience with) computer programming (e.g. Python, Matlab) is important. We welcome and encourage student applications from under-represented groups, and value a diverse research environment.


The student will receive training in conducting lab-based experiments, working with large datasets from state-of-art climate models and hydrological models from supervisors. The student will join research groups in both Geography and Biosciences and attend weekly group meetings to present and share results, and will be encouraged to present the results to wider research clusters or institutes, and at appropriate national and international conferences.


The award provides:

Fully funded 3.5 years studentship covering UK (Home tuition) fees and a stipend at the basic UKRI (£17,669 per annum for 2022) rate. A research and training support grant of up to £3,000 per annum to cover research expenses and conference attendance.

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