Project highlights

  • Opportunity to work on an important public health and ecosystem function related research question(s)
  • Contemporary environmental issue investigated with extensive UK-based field work and international travel
  • Varied and multidisciplinary (chemistry/biology/engineering) project tailored to applicant’s interests and background.


Microplastic (plastics <5 mm) pollution has been detected in every major natural ecosystem and built environment across the world, this includes remote regions such as the Pyrenees, the Arctic and the Mariana trench. Whilst plastic pollution in the world’s oceans has received a tremendous amount of publicity and attention, the sources, sinks and impacts of airborne microplastics, particularly those from urban or industrial areas, has only recently been considered (figure 1). In particular, understanding how plastic may act as vector for pathogenic organisms, aid anti-microbial gene transference and transfer toxic trace-elements to organisms and humans, are areas where further work is needed. For example, it was recently shown that airborne microplastics can act as SARS-CoV-2 vectors.

This studentship can be tailored to the interests, background and skills set of the successful applicant. It is envisaged however that the project would undertake the detection and characterisation of airborne microplastics in different environments to determine major contributors to plastic load in the atmosphere. There is particular interest in exploring the contribution of different waste management practices to airborne plastic load and further the understanding of any associated risks should they be transported away from treatment sites.

A drawing showing the different microplastic sources to the Western USA.
Click to enlarge

Figure 1. Atmospheric microplastic sources. Brahney, J., et al, 2021.

The project would look to characterise the type and size distribution of airborne plastics from designated point and linear sources in the first instance using a UK based fieldwork campaign. Atmospheric residency times and deposition profiles would be explored through transect analyses. After establishing the extent of the issue, it is envisaged that plastic surface chemistry and biological characterisations would be quantified and analysed to determine any potential risk.


The Open University


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability


Project investigator

Dr. Catherine Rolph, The Open University ([email protected])


How to apply


The project would use high velocity sampling pumps deployed at likely sources (e.g. industrial sites, roads and potentially within buildings) to sample the air for plastic. The subsequent samples would be analysed using biological and chemical preparation techniques; Fourier transform infra-red and Raman spectroscopy are available, as is nuclear magnetic resonance analysis, electron microscopes and a full range of chromatography instrumentation. The OU has laboratories equipped for DNA sequencing.

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.

Project specific training will be provided around laboratory skills and techniques and fieldwork including health and safety and sample collection methods.

Further details

A project in this area would suit a person who has a physical sciences, biology or chemistry background. This project has the potential to be multi-disciplinary, therefore there would be the opportunity to learn a wide range of cross disciplinary techniques under the supervision of experts. A successful applicant would join a well-established environmental and analytical team researching sustainable materials and the impacts of plastic pollution at the Open University. Please contact Dr Catherine Rolph ([email protected]) for further information.

If you wish to apply to the project, applications should include:

  • A CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three and who can comment on your academic abilities)

Applications to be received by the end of the day on Wednesday 11th January 2023.


Possible timeline

Year 1

Undertake a literature review and preliminary experiments to develop effective lab techniques for the recovery of microplastics from complex matrices. Initial fieldwork will be undertaken to begin sample collection.

Year 2

Fieldwork will be undertaken across a wide range of sites and samples will be analysed to understand the spatial distribution of microplastics and identify key contaminants.

Year 3

Final lab work as required based on findings from the previous two years. Writing up and submission.

Further reading


A respiratory and contact infection pandemic could potentially impact lab and fieldwork. This will be mitigated against by ensuring the project could shift towards a more desk-based approach to microplastics in air such as undertaking modelling.