PhD Position: Department of Environment

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Job description

Monitoring and modelling climate change impacts on the composition and functioning of temperate forest understorey vegetation Forests worldwide are of major importance for biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services, such as wood production, climate regulation and air purification. Many of these forests are fragmented and altered due to land cover change and land use intensification. On top of those pressures, impacts of climate warming are expected to increase, with increased risks for climate-induced changes in species composition, species migrations and (local) extinctions. Being able to predict the effect of climate warming on forests will be key to be able to conserve these ecosystems and the services they deliver. Dynamic forest models, that enable such predictions, however, often ignore the understorey vegetation growing at the forest floor, an important functional component of temperate forest ecosystems. One of the main reasons for this ignorance is our limited mechanistic understanding of the understorey’s response to climate change, making it hard to predict future changes in the understorey of a forest.

In this project, funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO,, we aim to advance our mechanistic understanding of understorey dynamics, through modelling these dynamics. A substantial part of the project also focuses on field data collection devoted to support this modelling exercise.

In this project, we specifically focus on understorey plant height and phenology, two crucial traits that influence competitive processes but also the functioning of the understorey.

The candidate will join the project’s team of experienced researchers and research technicians and will be supervised by Dr. Dries Landuyt, Prof Kris Verheyen and Prof Pieter De Frenne.

The successful candidate will carry out a combination of field and desktop work to support the work carried out in the project. Field work will include data gathering in two large mesocosm experiments (see and for more information), applying conventional monitoring techniques but also more innovative techniques for ecological data collection.

The candidate will have the opportunity to explore the use of microcontrollers (e.g. Arduino, ESP32) for automated data gathering and to implement these automated data gathering devices in the mesocosm experiments. Desktop work will include the use of large databases and the integration of existing and own field work data into an existing process-based model to predict changes in the understorey following climate change.

Depending on the candidates experience and interests, the candidate’s research may focus on one or more of these topics.

Job profile

  • You have a Masters or Honours degree in Bioscience Engineering, Biology or Ecology, or a Masters degree in Industrial Engineering or Mathematics with some background in Ecology.
  • You are an enthusiastic and highly motivated student with a strong interest in utilizing mathematical theory to aid ecological understanding
  • You are a team player with good (English) communication skills and are motivated to work in a collaborative project with other researchers and technical assistants
  • You have experience with programming languages such as R and/or Python for data analysis, model development and programming of sensors, or are eager to acquire these skills
  • You have experience with or are interested in electric circuits and microprocessors such as Arduino or ESP
  • You have a good knowledge of the biodiversity and functioning of temperate forest ecosystems, and vegetation ecology in general

How to apply

Please send your CV and a one-page cover letter explaining how you would approach the position, answering the selection criteria above, to and by 1 February 2021 (all documents should be merged together into one single PDF file).

From 8 February onwards, a selection of candidates will be invited for an online interview. Questions related to this vacancy can be sent to


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