• Image of the west coast of Scotland in summer
    blue background
    West coast: an adventurer's paradise
  • Image shows two marine robotics scientists in the North Atlantic Glider Base
    white background
    Outstanding research infrastructure...
    enables outstanding research
  • Picture of physical oceanographer Prof Stuart Cunningham in his office
    white background
    SAMS supervisors: world-leading experts
  • Photo showing benthic biodiversity in deep waters
    white background
    Marine biodiversity:
    treasure trove for researchers

Find a PhD at SAMS

We currently have one fully funded PhD vacancy:

Optimising strain selection and developing a biorefinery for industrially relevant micro-algae

Supervisors: Prof Michele Stanley, Dr Sebastian Jubeau (Xanthella), Dr Valeria Montalescot and Dr Michael Ross

Algae encompass an incredibly diverse collection of organisms and are chemically complex, capable of producing an array of natural products (e.g. carotenoids, pigments, proteins, lipids, and terpenes). In comparison with 'higher' plants, algae typically have higher rates of growth and solar energy conversion ratios. This wealth of genotypic and phenotypic algal diversity provides an excellent biotechnological platform for the commercial-scale production of natural products that can be used in a variety of markets. Despite this great potential, there are only a handful of algal species cultivated commercially, including Dunaliella salina and Haematococcus pluvialis. These species synthesise carotenoids that can account for 3-5% of the dry weight of the cell. The global annual carotenoid market was valued at $1.2 billion in 2014, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.52% and is projected reach $1.4 billion by 2019.

As highlighted by the UKRI BBSRC funded NIBB Phyconet one of the key constraints preventing the widespread cultivation of micro-algae are the high costs and technical challenges associated with downstream processing; more specifically harvesting cells and extracting compounds of interest. One way to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of micro-algal production is by targeting valorization of the whole biomass through the adoption of a biorefinery approach. Some key considerations for this include: (i) to work with wet biomass hence avoiding the high energetic cost of drying and the degradation of sensitive products, (ii) to develop an integrated downstream process compatible with the valorisation of the largest number of valuable co-products for various applications.

The main objective of this proposal is to improve the potential for commercial-scale algal biotechnology by employing different algal biorefinery approaches. Candidate species will be selected based upon their biochemical profile and cellular characteristics, ease of cultivation, and commercialisation potential. For example, Chlorella spp., Nannochloropsis spp., Phaeodactylum sp. and Tisochyrsis sp. are all capable of synthesising an array of pigments, carotenoids, and essential fatty acids that make them potentially valuable for nutrition, pharmaceutical, and aquaculture feed industries. Furthermore, they all have different cell morphologies which give them varying degrees of recalcitrance to downstream processing. In order to obtain the highest value from the biomass produced, a variety of cell disruption (freeze/thawing, bead milling, sonication) and product purification (filtration, centrifugation, chromatography) techniques will be investigated. Feasibility studies can then be performed in large-scale photobioreactors to give a better overview of the commercial potential of industrial micro-algal biotechnology. Another sticking point is the lack of tailoring culture of media and conditions to the microalgal specie being exploited. This can have a major impact in terms of the quality and quantity of biomass produced. In order to address these issues the student will work closely with both the academic partner, SAMS (UHI), and the industrial partner, Xanthella, since both organisations are on the same site this will further facilitate feedback in relation to the production methods/scale and biorefinery approaches being undertaken. Specifically we will:

The project

  1. Low-risk/ good reward entry point and training. Initially candidate micro-algal species will be selected based upon expertise, applicability/ end-use, marketability and legislature (e. GRAS certified)(Month 0-3).
  2. Low-risk/ Good reward A suite of methods will be developed and optimised that will be used throughout the studentship to assess growth (haemocytometer/optical density/Coulter counter) and the biochemical composition of the algal biomass (spectrophotometry/HPLC/GC-MS). Optimal growing conditions for each candidate species will be determined using a high-throughput screening approach (multi-well plate reader). (Month 0-18).
  3. Medium Risk/High Reward Cultivation conditions (e.g. media formulation, salinity, light and temperature regime using CT rooms, Algem® environmental modelling PBR’s and Xanthella’s PBRs, and selective breeding) will be tested to amend cellular properties with a view to ease cell disruption and enhance product yield (Month 6-24).
  4. Medium Risk/High Reward The most promising candidate specie(s) will be cultivated at a larger-scale, using the microPharos® and Pandora photobioreactors (PBRs), in alignment with the biorefinery framework this will completed at Xanthella Ltd premises (Month 18-36).
  5. Medium Risk/High Reward Algal biomass will be disrupted using a variety of techniques (g. freeze-thaw/bead milling/sonication). Disruption efficiency will be assessed using both direct and indirect methods (cell counts/biochemistry/microscopy/flow cytometry coupled with human-assisted machine learning). Efforts will be made to achieve selective release during the cell destruction step to facilitate further fractionation steps. For this purpose, as specific components are located on different cell compartments or organelles, the understanding of cellular topology is required to design a selective release strategy that take advantage of this compartmentalisation (Month 6-36).
  6. Medium Risk/High Reward Different biorefinery strategies will be explored on a species-by-species basis. Strategies will be founded upon the previous experiences of the supervisory team and will take into account target product(s) of interest, extractability, and techno-economic analysis (Month 6-36).
  7. Completion of academic milestone’s, communication of research and creation of a final thesis (Month 32-48).

Research Facilities and Environment

SAMS has excellent facilities for marine research. The student will have access to computing, library and laboratory facilities as required. SAMS hosts approximately 40 postgraduate students who are supported by both SAMS and UHI graduate schools.

Funding notes

UK students: The studentship is fully funded by the BBSRC IBioIC CTP programme for 48 months (inc write up). Funding covers fees, research training support grant (RTSG), stipend. 

EU students: The studentship covers fees and RTSG. Student required to self-fund stipend (unless they have lived/worked in the UK for last 3 years). 
International students: Studentship covers part of the fees. Students required to self-fund RTSG, stipend and the difference between the Home/EU and worldwide fees. 
View Website 

Students must be domiciled in the Highlands and Islands transition region during the course of their study to be eligible for funding. 


How to apply

Application deadline: 17 Jun 2019 by 5pm BST

Interview date: 27 Jun 2019

Project start date: 30 Sep 2019

Applicants must possess a minimum of an Honours degree at 2:1 and/or a Master’s Degree (or International equivalent) in a relevant subject.

To apply please complete the standard application form, attaching supporting documentation and send to: phd@sams.ac.uk



Below are some ideas put forward by staff for students who want to self-fund a PhD project:

  • >The genetic stabilit of microalgal strains used in biofuel production (Dr Michele Stanley)
  • >Modelling the hydrodynamics of large scale macroalgae cultivation (Dr Michele Stanley)
  • >Oyster culture in Scotland (Drs Adam Hughes and Michele Stanley)
  • >The war of the marine worlds: Do pathogens contribute to the resilience of marine ecosystems against biological invasions? (Dr Claire Gachon)
  • >Genomics of algal defenses against their pathogens (Dr Claire Gachon)
  • >The evolution of pathogenicity among oomycetes: a comparative genomics approach (Dr Claire Gachon)
  • >Implications of large offshore renewables arrays for fisheries (Dr Clive Fox)
  • >Prey selection by gadoid larvae (Dr Clive Fox)
  • >Behaviour of the marine predatory copepod Euchaeta norvegica (Dr Clive Fox)
  • >Reproductive behaviour of a southern copepod in the changing environment of the west of Scotland (Dr Clive Fox)
  • >Feeding preferences of Nephrops larvae (Dr Clive Fox)
  • >Dispersal of early life stages of flatfish on the west of Scotland (Dr Clive Fox and Professor Michael Burrows)
  • >Fine scale passive acoustic tracking of harbour porpoises: investigation of echolocation behaviour and practical applications (Professor Ben Wilson)
  • >Arctic wide zooplankton migration behaviour (Professor Finlo Cottier and Dr Kim Last)
  • >Developing a fjord box model for high latitudes (Professor Mark Inall and Profesor Finlo Cottier)
  • >How does vertical mixing influence ocean-glacier interactions? (Professor Mark Inall and Professor Finlo Cottier) 

Many PhDs come with full studentships, which cover fees and living expenses, so that students can focus on their research and be expected to complete their studies in 3 or 3.5 years.

Self-funded students will require to have IRO £14,500 per year for living expenses to be in line with RCUK doctoral stipends on top of the fees.

For UHI PhD projects, click here for the current fees.

Most our PhD projects are registered through the University of the Highlands and Islands, and this page outlines the application procedure for UHI PhDs. Please note that we have several other doctoral training partnerships - most notably with the University of Edinburgh, and applications to these programmes follow procedures by other universities. Information regarding these can be found on the individual project adverts.

We adhere strictly to equality and diversity policies during all phases of recruitment so that we find the most talented and motivated students to join us.


To be eligible to study for a PhD at SAMS UHI, who need to possess - in a relevant discipline and from a reputable institution:

  • >A Master's qualification and / or
  • >A Bachelor degree with first class or upper second class honours and / or
  • >Another qualification or substantial experience that demonstrates your academic competence to complete doctoral training successfully (to be approved by the UHI Research Degrees Committee on the recommendation of the SAMS Director).
  • >Additionally, international students whose first language is not English and who do not hold a prior degree obtained in English must hold an IELTS qualification with a score of 6.5 (6+ in writing), gained within two years prior to your registration date.

How to apply

Most importantly you need to have identified an approved PhD project (including a Director of Studies / supervisory team) that you are unquestionably excited by. This can be a ready made project advertised on these pages OR a proposal you have developed with a SAMS supervisor and have funding for.

PhD application guidance SAMS 2019-20

To apply, you will need to submit the following::

  • >Completed application form (IBioIC PhD application form)
  • >Copies of all official qualification certificates and transcripts. If your official certificates/transcripts are not in English, this must be accompanied by a fully certified translation provided by a professional translator/translation company
  • >For applicants whose first language is not English, an English language test certificate (IELTS or eqv.) is required and the certificate must have been gained within the past 2 years
  • >A copy of the photo page of your passport if you are not a UK national. Also include any pages which indicate a right of abode in the UK.
  • >Copy of all your official degree transcripts (BSc & MSc - as appropriate). If you have not yet completed your degree, please send a transcript showing all your modules and grades.
  • >Two references. Send the Gradschool PGR reference form 2018 reference request form to each referee and ask them to return them to phd@sams.ac.uk before the application deadline

These documents should be sent to reach us by the deadline advertised on each advert.

By post
Academic Registry Officer: Post Graduate
The Scottish Association for Marine Science
Argyll PA37 1QA


By Email

Interview information

The best candidates on paper will be invited for face-to-face interview. Applicants who cannot attend an interview in Oban may be offered Skype interviews.

Most PhD students will want to meet their potential supervisors to discuss the project, their personal suitability and to ascertain that they will be able to work together for a prolonged period of time.

For administrative issues, your first and main point of contact is the postgraduate registry officer, Anna Kane:

E: PhD@sams.ac.uk T: +44 (0) 1631 559 000 (reception)
T: +44 (0) 1631 559 427 (direct)

The SAMS graduate school is convened by marine deep-sea ecologist, Dr Bhavani Narayanaswamy:

E: Bhavani.Narayanaswamy@sams.ac.uk T: +44 (0) 1631 559 305 (direct)