PhD positions in biology, agronomy or environmental engineering, Switzerland 2015

The expansion of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is one of the main drivers of land use change and deforestation in the tropics. This expansion provides significant economic earnings for producer countries, corporations and smallholders, but at the cost of negative externalities within and beyond the landscapes in which oil palm is grown. Stakeholders and decision makers need to devise and adopt ‘green’ development trajectories that balance better development and conservation goals in an environment with pervasive uncertainties.

A better understanding of socio-economic and ecological processes that shape environmental outcomes and the feedbacks that such outcomes impose on society will help chart a path towards more sustainable and inclusive futures.

The Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes project OPAL is funded by the research for development program r4d of the Swiss National Science Foundation and is lead by Prof. J. Ghazoul, ETHZ.

The specific topic of this PhD, which will be accomplished at EPFL Lausanne, is to address the issue of soil organic matter (SOM). Soils and soil-plant interactions underpin the provision, regulating and supporting ecosystem services, and provide indicators of ecosystems health and integrity. Processes related to SOM and its turnover act as key indicators as to the state of soil function and derived services. We will test whether management practices (density, understory, etc.) serve to mitigate changes in nutrient dynamics, soil fertility and dissolved nutrient losses. Aim is to develop a set of biogeochemical indicators related to SOM as a response to land use.

You will work in different sites (potential sites are in Indonesia, Columbia and Cameroon) and collect soil samples along gradients of different land-use types (vegetation/understory management/historical land-use) in the different environmental setting.

Data will be incorporated and explored in the context of participatory land-use models in collaboration with other project partners. These models aim to explore decision making under alternative future land use scenarios, and their impacts on ecosystem function and services.

You are highly motivated to work cooperatively in an interdisciplinary team, contributing with your topic to the broader scope of the project. You have a Master degree in biology, agronomy or environmental engineering, with some experience in soil science or ecology. Ability to do fieldwork in sometimes difficult or unforeseen conditions in the tropics is required. Skills in laboratory analysis and in statistics are necessary.
You have good communication skills and are fluent in written and spoken English (knowledge of French would be advantageous).

Please send your complete application to Sandra Levin ( Prof. Alexandre Buttler (; phone +41 (0)21 693 39 39) will be happy to answer any questions or provide further information.

Candidates first selected based on their CV will be invited to provide a short statement on 5 questions related to the project. Based on this short homework, a short list of 3-5 persons will be made for the interview.

Start is planed for January 2016.