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PhD Arctic Greening – Plant-Soil-Interactions

100%, Zurich, fixed-term

Climate warming is transforming the Arctic at an unprecedented rate. Previously barren landscapes are “greening” as a result of longer snow-free periods and increases in plant growth. Although the Arctic is warming almost everywhere, patterns of Arctic greening and changes in the Arctic biosphere are highly diverse. As Arctic landscapes continue to change, we need to understand the biological and physical-chemical feedbacks associated with the Arctic’s transition into this novel state. 

Project background

For a new project funded by ETH Zurich’s highly competitive internal Research Grant Program, we are looking for three highly motivated PhD candidates to work on interdisciplinary approaches to develop a deeper understanding of the evolutionary, ecological and biogeochemical processes underlying Arctic greening. One of the main objectives of this project is to test how far the observed vegetation changes throughout the Arctic are tied not only to warming, but to changes in soil properties and soil microbial communities. 

We will study ecosystems of the High-Arctic Svalbard Archipelago and northern Norway to determine the underlying interactions between plants, soils and microbial communities across geoclimatic gradients. For this we will work in interdisciplinary teams using experiments that have been designed to assess the response of Arctic ecosystems to warming and how soil-vegetation-microbial interactions will govern the pace and shape of Arctic greening, Arctic biodiversity changes and biogeochemical cycles. The project is led by a consortium of researchers from ETH, WSL and NINA.

Job description

Your primary PhD supervisor will be Jake Alexander and your main responsibilities will be to access adaptation and response of plant communities to soil development in the warming Arctic. This includes the following tasks:

  1. Asses soil development in relation to parent material and its susceptibility to weathering
  2. Determine plant community structure, adaptations and strategies as drivers for Arctic greening
  3. Assess the evolutionary potential of a model plant (Silene acaulis) to respond to climate change
  4. Investigate interactions between climate, competition and soil development as constraints on plant performance

Your profile


  • Fluent in English (oral and writing) and excellent communication skills 
  • High level of motivation for the scientific content of the project
  • Interest in participating in scientific communication (written and spoken)
  • Strong communication, collaboration, active listening, and problem-solving skills
  • Proven field work experience and/or proven ability to operate effectively in remote/harsh regions
  • Independent, self-organized, solution oriented work approaches
  • Experience with/motivation for interdisciplinary work
  • Creativity and flexible thinking
  • Flexibility and willingness to stay abroad for longer periods of time for work
  • Ability to independently conduct statistical data analysis 
  • Valid driving licence

For the "Plant-Soil-Interaction PhD", the following specific skills are required:

  • Driven by an interest in plant evolution, natural selection and species interactions
  • Strong interest in soil development, weathering and its impact on soil nutrient dynamics
  • Background in plant biology, ecological genetics, community and/or ecosystem ecology
  • Basic knowledge of molecular bioinformatics (asset)
  • Knowledge of practical plant species identification, plant community categorization
  • Interest in manipulative experiments to assess plant responses to natural selection and the genetic basis of evolutionary processes
  • Can sustain intense manual work on phenotypic traits from experimental populations (field and greenhouse) and generate large, clean datasets for analyses

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 with the following documents:

  • Motivation letter (max. 1 page) that explains why you apply for this position (you are welcome to apply for more than one of the positions), why you excel in meeting the project requirements, and why we should hire you
  • MSc or equivalent degree that includes thesis and research work (listing courses taken and grades)
  • Title and a short description of 1 selected research project that you carried out or contributed to, reporting on rationale, results and own contribution (max 1/2 page)

Please note that we exclusively accept applications submitted through our online application portal. Applications via email or postal services will not be considered.

Further information about the Plant Ecology group can be found on our website. Questions regarding the position should be directed to the primary supervisor Prof. Jake Alexander, (no applications).

Applications will be reviewed from the beginning of October onwards until the position is filled.

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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