Project highlights

  • Development of new, low-cost, but improved accuracy sensors for use by the general public for citizen science monitoring of river water health in the UK. 
  • The ability to take your sensor technology from the laboratory into the field. 
  • Working in a friendly and cooperative research group at a world leading institution, with support from The Rivers Trust and Citizen Science volunteers.  


Citizen science is any activity that involves the public in scientific research. One area where citizen science projects have demonstrated their value is in sampling the water quality of natural freshwater rivers. Such river monitoring aids in supplementing the limited and often sporadic monitoring performed by government bodies such as the Environment Agency (EA). Citizen science sampling was recently in the news due to Citizen Science data collected from the River Wye proving that run-off from intensive poultry farms was leading to significant phosphate pollution.1 

Key parameters of interest for river health monitoring include temperature, dissolved oxygen (DO), total dissolved solids (TDS, conductivity), pH, phosphate, ammonia, nitrate, and turbidity (suspended sediment).2 Currently citizen science sensors, as they tend to be provided to the general public for free by environmental non-government organisations (Rivers Trusts or Wildlife Trusts), need to be low-cost. However, low cost here often means compromises on range, accuracy, limit of detection and ease of use (available test methods are typically developed for use in aquariums not river systems). In contrast, EA sampling involves high-cost analytical laboratory equipment, which is inaccessible to citizen science samplers. The aim of this project would be to bridge the gap and develop low-cost, easy to use instrumentation, which provides improved accuracy and traceability compared to the existing citizen science sensors. Data collected will also feed into the “Catchment Systems Thinking Co-operative (CaSTCo) project3 – a £7.1M project funded by OFWAT Innovation Fund – whose aim is to develop a national standard framework for catchment monitoring. We will aim to focus on 4 parameters during the PhD, DO, pH, TDS (conductivity) and phosphates; if time is available, we will expand the range. 

The Macpherson group is an internationally recognised, friendly, and co-operative electrochemistry research group at the University of Warwick.4 If you were to undertake a project with us, you would have the benefit of the day-to-day supervision of Dr Joshua Tully (Research Fellow) and the extensive experience of Prof. Julie Macpherson. The project would also be heavily involved with the Rivers Trust (see below) who lead CaSTCo.3 

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding


University of Warwick


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Prof. Julie Macpherson ([email protected], University of Warwick)


Dr. Joshua Tully ([email protected], University of Warwick),

Simon Browning ([email protected], Deputy Technical Director, The Rivers Trust),

Michelle Walker ([email protected], Technical Director, The Rivers Trust).

How to apply


We wish to explore a number of different analytical approaches to producing the low-cost analytical sensors. These will include electrochemical measurements (where we record a characteristic potential / current), colourimetry (measure solution absorbance), and/or luminescence (measure light emission from the solution). We will couple these methods with low-cost fabrication methodologies, which also encourage maximum design flexibility, for example 3D-Printing and Injection Moulding. An interested researcher could also choose to develop prototype electronics based on Arduino or other microcontrollers. The aim will be to produce functional prototype sensors, which will both be tested by the PhD student and volunteers in the field (access to different river systems will be possible via the Rivers Trust). Note, no prior experience with 3D printing or Arduino electronics is necessary. We believe a student who is interested in sensor development and testing in the field would get the most out of this project. 

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.  

Students will receive training in the application/theory of analytical measurement techniques, including (i) electrochemical (ii) colorimetric and (iii) luminescence methods. Training will also be given in (i) 3D printing (ii) open-source electronic platforms and (iii) data analysis and handling. The Rivers Trust will offer training in (i) freshwater environmental sampling; (ii) commercially available monitoring instrumentation; (iii) hands-on sessions highlighting the pros and cons of different measurement approaches.  

Partners and collaboration

The Rivers Trust is the umbrella organisation for 60+ member River Trusts across Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Local Trusts drive positive change for rivers, reducing pollution, building climate resilience and helping nature’s recovery. The Rivers Trust employs around 60 staff, comprising national experts in data analysis, freshwater ecosystems, monitoring technologies, water policy and governance, community engagement, land use impacts, nature-based solutions and much moreSupported by members of The Rivers Trust Technical Team, the successful applicant will have access to experts across the Rivers Trust movement including those at local Trusts (Severn Rivers Trust and Trent Rivers Trust). 

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Prof. Julie Macpherson (UoW, [email protected]), Dr. Joshua Tully (UoW, [email protected]), and Simon Browning (The Rivers Trust, [email protected]).

To apply to this project: 

  • You must include a CENTA studentship application form, downloadable from: CENTA Studentship Application Form 2024. 
  • You must include a CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three) who can comment on your academic abilities. 
  • Please submit your application and complete the host institution application process via: Complete the online application form – selecting course code P-C1PB (Life Sciences PhD); from here you will be taken through to another screen where you can select your desired project. Please enter “NERC studentship” in the Finance section and add Nikki Glover, [email protected] as the scholarship contact. Please also complete the CENTA application form 2024 and submit via email to [email protected].  Please quote CENTA 2024-W12 when completing the application form. 

 Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Development of Sensors for Analytes 1 & 2 and laboratory testing of these.

Year 2

Field Testing of Sensors 1 & 2. Laboratory Development of Sensors 3 & 4.

Year 3

Field Testing of Sensors 3 & 4. Engagement in Citizen Science Projects with the sensors developed. 

Further reading

1: Jon Ungoed-Thomas (2023) ‘Citizen scientists make a vital difference’: the locals who proved the River Wye was polluted. Available at (Accessed September 6th, 2023). 

2: Hassan Omer N (2020) Water Quality Parameters. Water Quality – Science, Assessments and Policy. IntechOpen. DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.89657. 

3: Catchment Monitoring Cooperative (no date). (Accessed September 6th, 2023). 

4: Warwick Electrochemistry and Interfaces Group. Available at: (Accessed September 6th 2023).