PhD Position in Environmental Science

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich

PhD Position in Environmental Science

The Ecosystems and Landscape Evolution group, the Environmental Robotics Lab, and the Environmental DNA group at ETH Zurich and WSL are pleased to invite applications from prospective PhD students interested in studying and developing robotics methodologies for the automated collection of environmental DNA (eDNA), specifically for biodiversity monitoring.

Project background

The historic Kunming-Montreal Agreement of 18 December 2022 marked a significant milestone as over 200 countries came together to commit to the cessation and reversal of biodiversity loss. However, achieving a nature-positive future remains a formidable task, hindered in part by the absence of efficient and accurate tools for capturing comprehensive snapshots of global biodiversity. This is precisely where the integration of robots and environmental DNA (eDNA) technologies can truly make a difference. The assessment of biodiversity through eDNA entails the collection and sequencing of genetic traces shed by local species within their environment. This innovative approach has revolutionized biodiversity monitoring by offering a non-invasive means to detect multiple species, including those that are notoriously elusive, from a single environmental sample, such as water, soil, or air. While eDNA surveys hold immense potential, the collection of samples continues to be a labor-intensive and costly aspect of the workflow. Robots equipped with specialized collectors and advanced perception capabilities have the power to automate the process of eDNA collection, thereby providing standardized and cost-effective biodiversity surveys even in challenging and inaccessible environments. By leveraging these automated systems, we can overcome the limitations of manual sampling, reduce cost, and expedite data acquisition.

Job description

The PhD student selected for this position will innovate the design, perception and operation of drones to advance applications of eDNA technologies for biodiversity monitoring. The PhD student will undertake the following research tasks:

  • Exploring and developing automatable and scalable collection methods of eDNA using drones in diverse terrestrial ecosystems such as forests and agricultural fields. This will also involve designing solutions for multiple eDNA sample types, including vegetation surface, water bodies, and air
  • Developing computer vision techniques for the identification of relevant eDNA sampling locations
  • Developing control algorithms to automate the eDNA collection combining on-board sensing and ecological knowledge
  • Conducting thorough testing of the developed solutions in real-world conditions to ensure their efficacy and reliability

Your profile

We are seeking an individual who fulfills or possesses most of the following requirements:

  • Possession of an MSc degree in robotics, mechanical engineering, computer science, or a related field
  • Strong motivation to work in a highly multidisciplinary environment, collaborating with biologists and environmental scientists
  • A professionally relevant background in one or more of the following domains: robotics, mechatronics, machine learning, and other complementary fields
  • Proficiency in software engineering, including a solid foundation in C++ and/or Python
  • Previous exposure to the Robot Operating System (ROS)
  • Experience in developing and testing mechatronics systems
  • Hands-on experience in implementing real-life robotic systems
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills in English
  • Bonus: Experience in molecular biology

 

Your workplace

 

We offer

The project will be co-hosted by the Ecosystems and Landscape Evolution group, the Environmental Robotics Lab and the Environmental DNA group. This offers a unique opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary team of roboticists, ecologists and biologists with tight feedback between theory and experiment, and the possibility to access state-of-the-art robotics facilities and field sites (e.g. Masoala Rainforest Halle at Zurich Zoo).

Examples of results achieved through collaboration between the three teams are: Drone-assisted collection of environmental DNA from tree branches for biodiversity monitoringVideo - Reportage XPrize 2023 with DNA of Music

The period of employment is 4 years. Tentative starting date: Q1 2024

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Curious? So are we.

We look forward to receiving online applications including:

  • 1-page letter of motivation addressed to Prof. Dr. Loïc Pellissier, Prof. Dr. Stefano Mintchev and Prof. Dr. Kristy Deiner
  • CV and certificates
  • Transcripts and diplomas for bachelor's and master's degrees. If you have not completed the master's degree, you must submit a confirmation that the master's thesis has been submitted
  • A copy of the master's thesis. If you recently have submitted your master's thesis, you can attach a draft of the thesis
  • Name and contact information of two referees
  • If you have publications, software that you have developed, or other relevant research work please include it (or a summary for it)

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

Review of applications will be on an ongoing basis beginning Dec 15th 2023 and continue until the position is filled.

For more information, specific questions regarding the position can be directed to Professor Stefano Mintchev at smintchev@ethz.ch or Professor Loïc Pellissier at loic.pellissier@usys.ethz.ch (no applications).

About ETH Zürich

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.