MSc(Res) Marine Biology

The Master of Science by Research degree in Marine Biology is a 12-month, research only degree, in which the candidate will undertake a supervised research project in the area of Marine Biology, in the School of Biology, University of St Andrews.

The candidate will be based in the interdisciplinary Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI), based at East Sands, St Andrews. The SOI is home to the world famous Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU), and hosts a wide-range of researchers with interests ranging from the deep oceans to the coasts, and from the people who use and interact with the sea, to the biological and physical processes that make the oceans function.

SOI supports four research themes:

  • Global Change and Planetary Evolution
  • Ecology, Fisheries and Resource management
  • Developmental and Evolutionary Genomics
  • The Sea Mammal Research Unit.

SOI brings together behavioural and population ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists, conservationists, mathematicians and environmental scientists to contribute towards understanding and managing the future of our oceans and the organisms, big and small, that live within them. Further details about the SOI.

Candidates may approach potential supervisors in the SOI directly or via advertised projects listed below.



Evolutionary developmental biology

Supervisor: Dr David E. K. Ferrier

Research area(s): Evolutionary developmental biology

Research description: We seek to understand how the diversity of animal forms have evolved via changes to their development, usually taking the homeobox genes of the Hox/ParaHox and related clusters as a starting point. A variety of invertebrate species are studied (including amphioxus, Ciona, annelids, arthropods, cnidarians and sponges), with the aim of focusing on major transitions in animal evolution, including the origins of the animal kingdom, the origin of the bilaterally symmetrical animals (bilaterians) and the origin of chordates and vertebrates.

Relevant references: See

Subject area(s): Evolutionary biology, Developmental Biology

Keywords: Evo-devo, regeneration, embryology, genomics

Does dementia occur in sea mammals?

Supervisor: Professor Frank Gunn-Moore

Research area(s): Does dementia occur in sea mammals?

Research description:

A new Masters position is available to explore the question does dementia occur in sea mammals? Alzheimer’s disease in humans is a well-known phenomenon, but whether this form of dementia occurs in other mammals has only been explored in relatively small numbers, and very few other mammals have been potentially shown to have biochemical markers that look similar to those found in human patients (Youssef et al., 2016 Veterinary Pathology 53(2) 327-348). Recent data involving work from Florida, St Andrews and Oxford has suggested that these biomarkers may also be found in some species of stranded dolphins (Gunn-Moore et al., 2018 Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 14(2), 195-204). Therefore in this exciting and novel proposal due to a new collaboration between Prof Frank Gunn-Moore (Biomedical Science Research Complex, University of St Andrews), Prof Ailsa Hall (Director of the Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews), Sir Prof Simon Lovestone (University of Oxford) and Dr Mark Dagleish (Moredun Research Institute, Edinburgh), we seek a candidate to explore a unique data base of sea mammal brains for the presence of potential biochemical changes that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. For enquiries, please contact:

Closing Date 1st May 2018.

Relevant References:

Subject area(s): Dementia, sea mammals

Keywords: dementia, Alzheimer’s, sea mammals

Investigating differences in the harbour seal genome in relation to regional variations in metapopulation dynamics

Supervisor: Professor Oscar Gaggiotti

Research area(s): Investigating differences in the harbour seal genome in relation to regional variations in metapopulation dynamics

Research description:

Harbour seals are an important, protected top predator species in UK waters.  However, since about 2000 their abundance within certain regions of Scotland (particularly in the Northern Isles and the Northeast coast) has declined dramatically, with some populations experiencing up to a 90% decline over a 15 year period.  To ensure the long-term persistence of the species’ metapopulations across the UK, it is necessary to understand how the currently identified genetic differences between populations are related to functional differences at the genome level.  Importantly this may help us understand the long term implications of the regional population declines.  Recent research indicates that some populations are ‘sources’ providing immigrants to other populations, the sinks, which show little movement outside of their region. Identifying potential associations between population dynamics and genetic diversity at physiologically important genomic regions (such as immune function) will help policy makers implement appropriate conservation strategies. The research project will be based on already-generated whole genome data from source and sink populations.

Candidate Description:

We seek an enthusiastic, motivated candidate with a genetic/genomic, bioinformatics or molecular ecology background with a good understanding of population genetic theory. The candidate also needs to have experience with coding at least one of the following; python, perl, R, and/or bash scripting. The candidate will also need to be self-funding or apply for scholarships with the support of the PIs.

Relevant References:

Subject area(s): molecular ecology, epidemiology

Keywords: harbour seals, population genomics, population decline, bioinformatics

Passive acoustic monitoring of marine mammals

Supervisor: Dr Julie Oswald

Co Supervisor: Prof Vincent Janik

Research area(s): Passive acoustic monitoring of marine mammals

Research description:

Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) is often used for research and mitigation for marine mammals. The stereotypical calls of Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) lend themselves to PAM efforts. However, their echolocation clicks are less stereotypical and therefore harder to classify. This Masters project would utilize current acoustic and visual datasets collected in the Salish Sea to develop SRKW click classifiers that could be implemented in PAMGuard software and used in ongoing mitigation and monitoring work. There may also be an option for the student to collect further data. Experience in computer programming (matlab, R, Java) is required for this project.

Relevant References:

Au, WWL, Ford, JKB, Horne, JK, Newman Allman, KA. Echolocation signals of free-ranging killer whales (Oricnus orca) and modelling of foraging for chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tsawystscha). Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 2004;115(2):901-909.

Ford JK, Fisher HD. Group-Specific Dialects of Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in. Communication and behavior of whales. 1983;76:129.

Gillespie D, Mellinger DK, Gordon JO, Mclaren D, Redmond PA, McHugh R, Trinder PW, Deng XY, Thode A. PAMGUARD: Semiautomated, open source software for real-time acoustic detection and localisation of cetaceans. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 2008;30(5):54-62.

Mellinger DK, Stafford KM, Moore SE, Dziak RP, Matsumoto H. An overview of fixed passive acoustic observation methods for cetaceans. Oceanography. 2007 Dec 1;20(4):36-45.

Subject area(s): Marine mammals, Acoustics

Keywords: click classification, killer whale

Biodynamics of sediments

Supervisor: Professor David Paterson

Research area(s): Biodynamics of sediments

Research description:

The candidate will use an experimental flume system to examine particle capture and retention by natural and synthetic biofilms. The dynamics of sediment transport are critical to understanding the ecology of coastal habitats and for the maintenance of navigable waterways. The mediation of sediment dynamics through biological agents ranging from mangroves to bacteria and microphytobenthos is a central theme of the Sediment Ecology Research Group at St Andrews University and this study is part of an ongoing NERC research programme and will employ flumes, PIV, ADV, MagPI and SEM methodologies.

Relevant References:

Chen, XD, Zhang, CK, Paterson, DM, Thompson, CEL, Townend, IH, Gong, Z, Zhou, Z & Feng, Q 2017, ‘Hindered erosion: the biological mediation of noncohesive sediment behavior’ Water Resources Research, vol Early View. DOI: 10.1002/2016WR020105

Malarkey, J., Baas, J.H., Hope, J.A., Aspden, R.J., Parsons, D.R., Peakall, J., Paterson, D.M., Schindler, R.J., Ye, L., Lichtman, I.D., Bass, S.J., Davies, A.G., Manning, A.J. & Thorne, P.D., 2015. The pervasive role of biological cohesion in bedform development. Nature Communications, 6:6257 doi: 10.1038/ncomms7257.

Van Colen, C., Underwood, G.J.C, Serodio, J, Paterson D.M. 2014. Ecology of intertidal microbial biofilms: Mechanisms, patterns and future research needs. Journal of Sea Research 92 (2014) 2–5.

Larson F, Lubarsky H, Gerbersdorf SU, Paterson DM, (2009) Surface adhesion measurements in aquatic biofilms using magnetic particle induction: MagPI. Limnology and Oceanography: Methods 7: 490-497

Subject area(s):

Keywords: coastal ecology, biofilms, particle capture, microphytobenthos

Evolutionary biology, developmental biology, cell biology, evo-devo, regeneration biology, genomics

Supervisor: Dr Ildiko Somorjai

Research area(s): Evolutionary biology, developmental biology, cell biology, evo-devo, regeneration biology, genomics

Research description: Have you ever wondered why some animals regenerate well, and humans do not? Are you interested in how new genes are born, and what generates diversity in animal body forms? The Somorjai lab addresses these problems from evolutionary, developmental and cell biological perspectives. We predominantly use the marine invertebrate chordate “amphioxus” due to its genetic and anatomical similarly to simple vertebrates. We also work on flatworms, which have amazing regenerative powers and multipotent stem cells. The project will depend on the student’s interests and background, but could include gene expression analyses, embryology, immunohistochemistry, confocal microscopy, genomics, and phylogenetic analyses.

Relevant References:

Bertrand S, Escriva H. Evolutionary crossroads in developmental biology: amphioxus. Development. 2011 Nov;138(22):4819-30.

Somorjai IM, Somorjai RL, Garcia-Fernàndez J, Escrivà H. Vertebrate-like regeneration in the invertebrate chordate amphioxus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 109(2):517-22.

Dailey, SC, Planas, RF, Espier, AR, Garcia-Fernandez, J & Somorjai, IML Asymmetric distribution of pl10 and bruno2, new members of a conserved core of early germline determinants in cephalochordates. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 2016. 3, 156.

Subject area(s): Evolutionary Biology, Developmental Biology

Keywords: Regeneration, Development, Evo-devo, Amphioxus


Entry requirements and selection process

An undergraduate Honours degree at 2:1 level or better in biological or environmental sciences. Students from backgrounds such as mathematics and the physical or chemical sciences may be accepted under exceptional circumstances.

If you studied for your first degree outside of the UK, please see the international entry requirements

For non-native English speakers, please see the English language requirements

Applicants will be short-listed by the project supervisor, and subject to interview by the project supervisor and an additional member of the Biology Postgraduate Committee.


For details of postgraduate tuition fees relevant to our research degrees including the MSc(Res), please visit:

Progression and assessment

Students in the MSc(Res) will be assigned an Internal Examiner (IE) and PG Tutor by the School. There will be a progress review meeting at three months to monitor and evaluate student progression, convened by the IE, with the student and Tutor in attendance. This meeting will be guided by a brief supervisor report and will be based on oral examination with no requirement for a written submission by the student.

The degree requires submission and examination of a dissertation at the end of the one-year program. As per 2016-2017 Senate Regulations (page 9), this thesis will consist of up to 30,000 words. The thesis will be evaluated by the IE and an External Examiner appointed at time of submission. Evaluation will be based on the written submission; there is no requirement for a viva.

Skills Training

In addition to the project-specific training that you will receive during your degree, Msc(Res) students will also have access to a wide range of training in transferable skills through the award-winning University of St Andrews GradSkills program, run by our Professional Development Unit CAPOD.

Specific post-graduate programs run within the School of Biology may also offer additional training, for instance in statistical, bioinformatics or molecular techniques.


Students may apply for placement in advertised projects or contact potential supervisors directly. We strongly recommend that potential candidates make contact with a potential supervisor before applying.  See links on this page.

Biology has two dates for admission to this degree: September and January each year.

If you have decided that you would like to make a formal application to study for an MSc(Res) at St Andrews, please complete an application using the online system.

Note: If you are self-funded and interested in working with a supervisor who does not currently have a project listed, please contact that person directly: supervisors’ email addresses may be found using the links on this page.