31 August 2021

Victoria University of Wellington is offering a PhD opportunity, funded by a New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission grant to Bioprotection Aotearoa.

This is a fantastic opportunity for a student wanting to engage with cutting-edge questions in community and landscape ecology as part of network of researchers working to protect New Zealand’s economically and ecologically important plant species from emerging pests and disease.


Myrtle rust, a pathogen discovered in Aotearoa in 2017, threatens survivorship and growth of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 37 endemic myrtle species, including the nationally critical swamp maire (Syzygium maire) and culturally and economically important mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium), as well as feijoa (Feijoa sellowiana). The abundance of myrtle species in Aotearoa means this pathogen is spreading widely. Young trees are particularly susceptible to myrtle rust creating heightened vulnerability of myrtle species in restored wetlands. Many restored wetlands sites, some initiated prior to 2017, were designed without consideration of myrtle rust invasion. Alongside myrtle rust exposure, wetland communities face pressures of habitat loss and climate change. Little is known about how myrtle rust will affect wetland succession and ecological trajectories under these combined threats.

Research aim

The aim of this PhD is to parameterise and develop agent-based models to explore stand dynamics and ecological trajectories of wetlands impacted by multiple threats, with a focus on myrtle rust and the importance of landscape position. The PhD student’s research will work towards identifying ecological tipping points and levers to maintain the health and resilience of Aotearoa’s wetlands. The student will have the opportunity to develop the scope of the project to align with their interests. We are particularly interested in students with backgrounds in landscape or community ecology, geospatial analysis, and species distribution modelling. Additionally, potential topics could include stand-level ecosystem service dynamics and wetland resilience. The project will support landscape-scale research on how nearby agricultural landscapes interact with successional trajectories of restored wetlands under multiple threats. The student will engage with a range of collaborators from Bioprotection Aotearoa to explore the cross-scale ecological dynamics of myrtle rust exposed landscapes.

Besides their own research, the student will attend courses and workshops in relevant transferable skills such as scientific writing and project management as well as participate in the biennial Bioprotection Aotearoa conference, weekly seminar series and group meetings

This research fits within current global research surrounding stand dynamics and ecological tipping points. See:
1. Zhang,B. and DeAngelis, D.L (2020). An overview of agent-based models in plant biology and ecology. Annals of Botany 126: 539–557, 2020DOI:
2. Dakos. et al. (2019). Ecosystem tipping points in an evolving world. Nature Ecology and Evolution 3:355-362
3. Toome-Heller, M. et al. (2020). Chasing myrtle rust in New Zealand: host range and distribution over the first year after invasion 49:3 327-328
4. Giejsztowt, J. Aimée T Classen, AT, Deslippe JR. (2020). Climate change and invasion may synergistically affect native plant reproduction. Ecology 101:1

Prerequisites and application process

Applicants for this project are expected to have evidence of research experience such as a complete BSc Honours thesis or Masters in ecology, biology or environmental science. Previous experience with statistical models and geographic information systems (GIS) are an asset.

Applicants should send evidence of qualifications and research experience, together with a curriculum vitae and contact details of two academic referees to Julie Deslippe by 9.00am Tuesday, 1 March, 2022. Applications should be supported by a cover letter that states why the candidate is interested in a PhD and how their qualifications and aspirations would map onto the proposed research.

The position is open to New Zealand residents and international applicants.

Preferred candidates would then need to apply to study at Victoria University of Wellington and meet the institutional criteria for entry prior to the scholarship being confirmed. These include being eligible to hold a New Zealand student visa, evidence of English language proficiency. New Zealand border restrictions to control COVID-19 during the global pandemic may also require the candidate to submit to COVID-testing and a period of managed isolation for two weeks upon entry to New Zealand.


The three-year (36-month) scholarship provides an annual stipend of NZ$28,000 a year tax-free, covers full university fees, and includes approximately NZ$5,000 a year towards operating expenses.

Location: Wellington, New Zealand
Institution: Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Supervisors: Julie Deslippe, Stephanie Tomscha, Jono Tonkin (University of Canterbury)
Discipline: Plant community ecology
Application deadline:  9.00am, Tuesday 1 March, 2022