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PhD student in organic Geochemistry

100%, Zurich, fixed-term

We seek a PhD student for a multidisciplinary project across three groups:

  1. The Sustainable Agroecosystems (SAE) group in the Department of Environmental Systems Sciences at ETHZ is dedicated to bring healthy food from fields to tables around the world for generations to come.
  2. The Surface Earth Evolution (SEE) group in the Department of Earth Sciences at ETHZ is committed to investigate the processes that drive global climate change over human to geologic timescales.
  3. The Georges Lemaître Center for Earth and Climate Research (TECLIM, UCLouvain, Belgium) is driven to understand how landscapes evolve and how this impacts the humans living on these landscapes.

Combined, our work intersects traditional Earth- and environmental-science fields to holistically study the drivers and impacts of changing climate and land use. We effectively integrate field-based sample collection and monitoring with lab-based geochemical measurements and numerical models.

Project background

This position is part of the SNSF-funded project “TropSEDs (Tropical Soil Erosion Dynamics): Unraveling the roles of climate and land-use on the erosional transfer of carbon from source to sink through time in the Kasaìˆ Basin”. The project aims to resolve the controls on—and predict future changes in—the movement and fate of tropical soil carbon in the Kasaï Basin, DR Congo. Specifically, we will sample sediments in rivers, floodplains, ancient lake bottoms, and soils along the Kasaï River. We will assess the amount, age, and source of organic carbon and how this relates to geologic factors such as clay sediment type or environmental factors like land use and climate, both today and over the past ~6,000 years. We will use these measurements to refine computer simulations of Earth’s surface processes to explore the life-cycle of carbon as it is transported from soils (“source”) to its final destination in sediment deposits (“sink”).

Job description

You will be responsible for the organic geochemistry aspects, with the specific duties:

  • Participate in two 800 km boat cruises on the Kasaï River and a field campaign in the Mbuji-Mayi region to collect water, sediment (both modern and Holocene-aged cores), and soil samples
  • Extract organic compounds from these samples to analyze their biolability and their carbon-isotope signatures (13C and 14C)
  • Elucidate how climate and land-use regulate erosion rates and the modern carbon cycle within the Kasaï Basin
  • Reconstruct how these carbon-cycle drivers have changed over the Holocene
  • Communicate findings, write scientific papers, and participate in international conferences and workshops

This position is integral to the research team, which includes 4 PhD students and 3 postdoctoral researchers across three groups. You will therefore lead these tasks, but will be supported by all involved PIs and postdocs. This multidisciplinary team offers the opportunity to learn, develop, and apply scientific skills beyond traditional organic geochemistry!

Your profile

Required experience, skills, and characteristics:

  • MSc degree
  • Organic geochemistry or carbon biogeochemistry background
  • Experience with field sampling and chemical laboratory analyses
  • Proficiency in English
  • Excellent team work and communication in a cross-cultural environment
  • Ability to work independently with flexibility, critical thinking, and a willingness to learn new skills!

Desirable criteria:

  • Proficiency in French
  • Familiarity with the rural African context
  • Experience working in tropical environments
  • Experience working on long, demanding field campaigns

We offer

This student will be primarily based in the SAE group. We offer excellent, inclusive working conditions and an internationally competitive salary (paid according to ETH standards). Our laboratories are primarily located in downtown Zurich and the working language is English. Start date will ideally be 1 March 2022 (and the latest 1 June 2022). The position is limited to 4 years.

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.
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We look forward to receiving your online application until 30.01.2022 with the documents:

  • Curriculum Vitae including educational history, any publications, awards, etc.
  • BSc and MSc transcripts (in English or German)
  • Motivation letter (~2 pages) describing your interests, goals, and how they relate to this project
  • Names and contact details of three references

Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview by 15.02.2022.

We exclusively accept applications submitted through our online application portal. Applications via email or post will not be considered. For more information, please contact Prof. Johan Six (, department of Environmental Systems Science.

In line with our values, ETH Zurich encourages an inclusive culture. We promote equality of opportunity, value diversity and nurture a working and learning environment in which the rights and dignity of all our staff and students are respected. Visit our Equal Opportunities and Diversity website to find out how we ensure a fair and open environment that allows everyone to grow and flourish.

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