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Educational Opportunities
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PhD Studentship (Molecular characterization of micro- and macro-fossils by mass spectrometry at the cellular scale), Université de Lille, Lille, Belgium

Posting Date: 15 April 2021
Closing Date: 20 May 2021

Advisors: Kevin Lepot (Associate Professor, HDR, Laboratoire d'Océanologie et de Géosciences, UMR 8187 U. Lille, CNRS, U. Littoral Côte d'Opale, Institut Universitaire de France), Yvain Carpentier (Associate Professor, Laboratoire de Physique des Lasers, Atomes et Molécules UMR 8523 U. Lille, CNRS), Thijs Vandenbroucke (Professor, Department of Geology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium)

Financing of thesis: obtained via Université de Lille, for 3 years starting in October 2021

Locality: Université de Lille, Cité Scientifique, 59650 Villeneuve d'Ascq, France

The origin of the fossil biomass in ancient rocks remains difficult to assess because of the simple morphology of the fossil microorganisms that compose it. Obtaining molecular signatures at the scale of the individualized fossil microorganism would enable us to better document the evolution of the biodiversity of microorganisms since 3.5 billion years. Similarly, the identification of fossil biomacromolecules at the scale of individual tissues would allow to constrain the nature of the oldest fossil macro-organisms, such as the first land plants.

The secondary ion time-of-flight mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) technique has been used to identify biomacromolecules such as melanin or hemoglobin derivatives in macroscopic fossils. This project aims to further develop this type of molecular analysis of fossils down to the cellular level. We will couple information from ToF-SIMS, resolved down to the sub-micrometer scale, and microscale two-step laser mass spectrometry (µL2MS) using an innovative instrument developed in Lille. The analytical parameters of both types of instruments will have to be finely tuned to maximize the molecular information obtained in the mass spectra. On the µL2MS instrument, several choices of laser desorption and/or laser ionization wavelengths will be tested, and a vacuum-UV ionization source will be added to the existing instrument.

We will analyze an exceptional collection of fossils, ~60 to ~460 million year old, including phytoplankton, benthic phototrophic microorganisms, fishes, insects, and plants. The objective is to decipher the composition of individualized (micro)fossils (and their ultrastructures/tissues) in terms of biomacromolecule derivatives (algenan, cellulose, peptidoglycan, chitin, collagen...). Porphyrin enrichments from chlorophylls will also be investigated. This molecular/morphological coupling will constrain the affinity of these organisms and will allow in turn to search for their oldest forms. The techniques applied here to paleontology can be transposed to exobiology (for example, a laser desorption-ionization mass spectrometer will be sent to Mars).

Candidate profiles: geosciences with knowledge of paleontology and organic geochemistry with a desire to master advanced instruments; or physics/chemistry (mass spectrometry, lasers and applications), with a desire to discover the basics of paleontology/geochemistry.

Contact for application: send curriculum vitae, letter of motivation and e-mails of 2-3 potential referees to / deadline: 20th of May, 2021

Doctoral school (Sciences de la Matière, du Rayonnement, et de l'Environnement)
website and full application file (to be filled if the preselection interview is conclusive)

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Two PhD Studentships (Tetralogic Microfossils), Department of Geology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

Posting Date: 2 May 2021
Closing Date: 24 May 2021

Applications are invited for two three-year PhD researcher positions investigating the palaeobiology of teratologic microfossils during respectively Silurian (project 1) and Jurassic (project 2) extinction events. The positions are funded by the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) and form part of a series of new hires by an international consortium, involving researchers at the universities of Ghent, Nottingham, Utrecht and California-Berkeley. The PhD students will be based at UGent. Project two (Jurassic teratologies) will be a joint PhD between the Universities of Utrecht and Ghent.

The successful candidate will undertake analysis of organic walled microfossils (palynomorphs) that display aberrations in morphology and texture associated with mass-extinction events in the fossil record, combined with a study of their modern analogues in experimental and field settings. The interdisciplinary HFSP project aims to test a set of interrelated hypotheses that link palaeobiological malformation to various environmental stressors, and to test their application to the many existing models for biotic crises across time and space. The deep time perspective of the research programme is provided by these two PhD projects, directed by Ghent University and Utrecht University, and focusses on selected Palaeozoic and Mesozoic events.

Key analytical techniques include optical microscopy, SEM, LA-ICPMS, FTIR and Synchrotron-XRF. In addition to research, the successful candidate will have opportunities to undertake training in transferable skills, to gain experience in mentorship, and to participate in fieldwork. The successful candidate will work closely with the PIs and other members of the team.

The successful candidates will join us at a very exciting time, as part of a major expansion of the study of fossil teratology in our labs, funded by HFSP ( HFSP Research Grants provide three years of support to international teams of applicants who initiate new collaborations. The team includes Prof. Thijs Vandenbroucke (Ghent University, Belgium), Dr. Barry Lomax (University of Nottingham, UK), Prof. Cindy Looy (University of California, Berkeley, USA) and Dr. Bas van de Schootbrugge (Utrecht University, The Netherlands) and will bring together expertise in geology, palaeontology, biology and chemistry. This includes the currently advertised new PhD project and several postdoctoral researchers. The successful candidate will benefit from the PI’s commitment to his/her career development and the joint PI’s extensive global network of collaborators. Based at UGent, these PhD projects will be supervised by PI Vandenbroucke. The project on Jurassic teratologies will formally be a joint PhD with Utrecht University and will include PI van de Schootbrugge as a co-supervisor.

The host lab at UGent ( focuses on reconstructing environmental conditions and the evolution of life from ancient Palaeozoic times to the current Anthropocene. The group currently includes 8 PhD students and 1 postdoc working on various aspects of micropalaeontology, which will constitute a rich working environment for the successful candidates.

This title will apply to PhD researchers and will be considered as a period of training as the researcher will have dual goals in terms of the research project and their own career development. The researcher will be mentored by the consortium of PIs. It is expected that a researcher would spend not more than 3 years at the PhD level.

The primary focus of the PhD Researcher will be to conduct the specified programme of research; however, a particular emphasis during this stage should also include:

  • to engage in appropriate training and professional development opportunities as required by the PI or University in order to develop research skills and competencies;
  • to engage in the dissemination of the results of the research in which they are engaged, as directed by, with the support of and under the supervision of the PIs;
  • to become familiar with the publication process;
  • to acquire generic and transferable skills (including project management and postgraduate mentoring/supervision);
  • to engage in the wider research and scholarly activities of the research group.

The successful candidate will provide a cover letter demonstrating evidence that they meet the following essential criteria:

  • Excellent scholarly results obtained during an MSc in Geology, Earth Sciences, Biology, Palaeontology, (Geo)Chemistry, or an equivalent degree in related fields pertinent to the research project. MSc degree required at the start of the appointment, but we accept applications by students currently in their final year.
  • Good analytical and laboratory skills
  • Ability to work as part of a(n international) team combined with an ability to manage tasks independently
  • Excellent problem solving skills
  • Excellent communication skills, particularly in English
  • Strongly motivated and ambitious attitude

How to apply
Informal enquiries can be made in confidence to Prof. Thijs Vandenbroucke, Department of Geology, UGent. Email:

Candidates should apply, in confidence, by submitting a single application document to before 5 pm (Belgian Local Time) on Monday, 24th May 2021.

This application should contain the following items, merged into a single .pdf document:

  • A cover letter
  • Your CV
  • The contact details of two referees (actual letters of support are accepted but not required at this stage)
  • A copy of your diplomas and the full transcripts of the scores/results you have obtained during your degree(s)
  • Students currently in their final year of their MSc are invited also to include a progress statement by their current academic supervisor

Shortlists will be drawn up swiftly and interviews will be scheduled in June 2021 (to be held via videoconferencing).


Sponsorship of The Palaeontological Association is gratefully acknowledged with special thanks to Alan R. T. Spencer,
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