Messages from the burning bush – seeking PhD applicants for research on plant flammability

plant BBQ measuring max temps
Device for measuring shoot flammability, Lincoln University. Based on a design by Jaureguiberry et al. (2011) Austral Ecology 36, 821-829.

Fire is one of the most pervasive and significant ecological disturbances worldwide. Wildfires are likely to become more frequent and/or severe in the future in many parts of the world due to climate change. To help understand the effects of fire on ecosystems or human infrastructure it is important to determine the flammability of plant species; that is, their capacity to burn. Consequently, we are looking to recruit one or more PhD students to our group to conduct research on plant flammability in New Zealand.

Our group is an interdisciplinary team of plant ecologists, fire scientists and evolutionary biologists. It includes: Dr Tim Curran, Lincoln University, a plant functional ecologist who uses functional traits to understand plant responses to disturbance; Professor Charles Fleischmann, University of Canterbury, a fire engineer who conducts research on fire dynamics and fire modelling; Associate Professor Michael Spearpoint, University of Canterbury, a fire engineer who conducts research on fire dynamics and fire modelling; Associate Professor George Perry, University of Auckland, who has conducted fire ecology research in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and New Caledonia and is currently part of a multinational research project aimed at understanding consequences of altered fire regimes (Wildfire PIRE); Grant Pearce, a senior fire scientist at the Crown Research Institute, Scion, who specialises in wildfire behaviour and is a member of the Australian Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre; Dr Sarah Wyse, University of Auckland, a postdoctoral fellow and plant ecologist who has been leading projects measuring shoot flammability in New Zealand species; Dr Adrian Paterson, Lincoln University, an evolutionary biologist who has interests in trait evolution; and Dr Dean O’Connell, Lincoln University, a plant ecologist and statistician. The research interests of a candidate would determine the composition of the supervisory team.

UC plant BBQ
UCP calorimeter for measuring shoot flammability, University of Canterbury. Modified from Jaureguiberry et al. (2011).

Candidates could conduct research in one or more of several broad areas, including:

  • Functional traits associated with plant flammability (such as leaf morphology and plant architecture);
  • Comparisons of methods to measure plant flammability at the shoot, branch and whole shrub level;
  • The evolution of plant flammability in key genera and families, including examination of variation in flammability within and between species;
  • Measuring plant flammability of native and exotic species to improve guidelines on fire management and to understand and predict changes to New Zealand ecosystems.

We greatly encourage potential candidates to derive their own research topic in the above or related topics. Candidates would have access to a range of research facilities for studies in plant ecology and fire science, including devices for measuring shoot flammability housed at Lincoln University and the University of Canterbury, and cone and furniture calorimeters at the University of Canterbury (see photos).

Chair_Fire UCan
Furniture calorimeter at the University of Canterbury.

We will work with prospective students to help them apply for suitable scholarships, such as the New Zealand International Doctoral Research Scholarship (due date 15 July 2015), the New Zealand Aid Programme (due dates vary), the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan (due dates vary), the Lincoln University Doctoral Scholarship (due date 1 October 2015), and the University of Canterbury Doctoral Scholarships (international 15 October 2015; domestic 15 October 2015).

Candidates should have a first class honours or Masters degree in science or engineering. Preference will be given to candidates with a background in fire science and/or plant ecology. Interested applicants should email Tim Curran ( and provide their CV, contact details for three referees, a paragraph describing possible research directions for their doctoral studies, two paragraphs describing their research interests and experience, and an indication of which of the above scholarships that they are eligible for. People interested in applying for the New Zealand International Doctoral Research Scholarship should make contact as soon as possible.

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