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PhD position in Biogeodynamics – Coupling the evolution of plant functional diversity with tectonics and climate over geological time in Zürich

Studierende finden an der ETH Zürich ein Umfeld, das eigenständiges Denken fördert, Forschende ein Klima, das zu Spitzenleistungen inspiriert.


100%, Zurich, temporary

The Department of Environmental Systems Science (D-​USYS) conducts research and offers studies into the conditions and functions of environmental systems, while the Department of Earth Sciences (D-​ERDW) works towards a deeper understanding of all domains of our home planet, from the inner Earth to the continents, oceans, biosphere and atmosphere.

Project background

Growing evidence suggests that the development of atmosphere, oceans, landscapes and evolution of life on planet earth is intrinsically linked to geological Earth processes (i.e., continental crust formation and movement). Here we ask “How has life shaped Earth - and how has Earth shaped life?”: a frontier research direction that appears among the top ten research questions shaping 21st-century Earth Science. There is a growing understanding that the evolution of the diversity of life on Earth was strongly affected by changes in the geological processes and the evolution of the atmosphere. Over geologic time scales, tectonic processes such as the redistribution of continents, growth of mountain ranges, formation of land bridges, and opening and closing of oceans interacted with the atmosphere. These physical and deep-time processes defined the environmental conditions that isolated and stimulated species to evolve and diversify. In turn, the evolution of life forms, such as carbon-storing plants, influenced geochemical cycles, atmospheric composition, and climate. To fully understand the functioning of the Earth, the intimate relationship between tectonics, climate, and the biosphere have to be considered together. These research disciplines have each developed independent mechanistic models, which must be coupled to study biogeodynamics over long time scales. In particular, Dynamic Vegetation Models (DVM) simulate shifts in potential vegetation, and its associated biogeochemical and hydrological cycles, as a response to variations in both climate and topography. Yet, most DVMs represent the species as a small number of fixed plant functional types, which neglects the complex patterns of evolving plant trait strategies and the variability within and between species. Most current models are thus ill-equipped to explore feedback between species trait evolution and biosphere–geosphere interactions. This project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation aims to study the coupled interactions between tectonics, climate, and the biosphere, accounting for species and phenotype evolution over long term periods.

Job description

The objective of this project is to study the coupling between the evolution of terrestrial plant life, tectonics and climate over deep-time using both virtual and realistic planetary boundaries. The development of this project is based on the “Gen3sis” framework, an eco-evolutionary model allowing for a simulation of the emergence of biodiversity, developed in the Landscape Ecology Group at D-USYS. Eco-evolutionary models can address the shortcoming of DVMs by simulating species diversification and intraspecific variability as the result of ecological and evolutionary processes. The candidate will first integrate features inspired from DVMs in the “Gen3sis” simulation model. Second, the candidate will design the pathways to couple the DVM-Gen3sis model with a geodynamic model (DAC-ELVIS) and parsimonious fast climate model (Monash Simple Climate Model or equivalent). From this coupling, the candidate will study the influence of the evolution of plant species and trait diversity, emerging from eco-evolutionary dynamics and the change in the earth climate within hypothetical planetary environments or constrained by paleo-earth forcing. The thesis is part of a team of three PhD students and one postdoctoral researcher and is embedded in an interdisciplinary, international effort that explores the factors that have resulted in this unique topographic and biological diversity by combining expertise from earth systems, climate and evolutionary modelling, and empirical earth science.

Your profile

We are looking for a highly motivated candidate who holds an MSc Diploma degree (or equivalent) in geology, ecology, evolution, plant biology, computer sciences or a related field. The candidate should have a strong interest in ecological modelling, computer science and modelling, and an interest in geoscience. Good communication skills in English (written and spoken) and the ability to work within a team are essential. Employment will be according to at ETH with funding secured for 4 years from ETH Zurich. The PhD thesis will start as soon as the candidate is selected and available.

ETH Zurich
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.

We look forward to receiving your online application with the following documents: a curriculum vitae, a brief statement of research interests (1 page), copies of bachelor and master transcripts, a list of courses taken and grades received, a summary of the master thesis (if completed/applicable), and names and contact information of 2-3 referees. Please note that we exclusively accept applications submitted through our online application portal. Applications via email or postal services will not be considered.

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