The Young Scientists' Programme

The Young Scientists' Programme, launched in 2006 from the ‘living legacy’ so kindly set up by Denis Smith-Summers, seeks to inspire scientists and students and advance our knowledge of the natural world to inform conservation now and in the future.
Curlew. Tom Streeter

In partnership with leading universities, we have supported over 80 PhD studentships; mentoring talented young students and helping these rising stars and inspiring leaders to navigate through their academic career in conservation science. BTO supervisors are committed to mentoring young scientists through the early stages of successful careers. There is a generosity of spirit and lively sharing of knowledge and ideas within our research community of volunteers and professionals.

As well as providing expert supervisors in a number of areas of study, the BTO has all the resources you might expect from a national research centre. 

Students are able to call on wide expertise, including staff involved with complementary research, surveys being carried out with the help of thousands of skilled volunteers across the UK, data sets going back over more than eighty years and advanced technical support from our information systems team.

Students also have access to BTO field equipment, advice from our media and communications staff and opportunities to network with a range of academics and practitioners, including our partners in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) and colleagues throughout Europe building through our participation in the European Bird Census Council (EBCC) and European Union of Ringing Schemes (Euring).

Specifically, the Programme enables BTO to mentor students awarded funding by NERC (The Natural Environment Research Council), who are selected to be the students with best potential to become the research leaders of the future.

It provides doctoral students with a first-rate, challenging research training experience within the context of mutually beneficial research collaboration between academic and non-academic partner organisations, such as Dr Chas Holt’s ground-breaking investigation into the links between deer browsing and the disappearance of Nightingales.

“Our support for students not only helps to encourage and train the next generation of conservation scientists, but also addresses a wide-range of species, from Whinchats to Rollers, and tackling issues from climate change to using genetic markers to quantify diet. Much of this work is published in scientific journals, including papers from the last year describing variation in the importance of climate and land cover in influencing bird populations across Europe, using hydrological models to predict the impacts of climate change on upland birds, and developing novel statistical methods to investigate predation” explains Dr James Pearce-Higgins, BTO Director of Science.

Lorna Shaw

Lorna Shaw

One of the first students to benefit from the Young Scientists’ Programme was Lorna Shaw, who was based at Exeter University and studied the decline of the House Sparrow for her PhD, supported by Dr Dan Chamberlain at BTO and Denis Summers-Smith. Lorna is now a Senior Advisor with Natural England in Colchester.

The House Sparrow Passer domesticus in urban areas: reviewing a possible link between post-decline distribution and human socioeconomic status  J.Ornithol.

Lorna says:  "visited Denis at his home in Guisborough, he was so keen to meet me and discuss my work that he invited me to stay overnight - as I was based in Cornwall at the time, a day trip was out of the question. Denis was very hospitable and interested in my work, and remarked at the time that his interest in sparrows was what kept him going. He had recently broken his ankle but was already out and about again monitoring the local sparrows on his patch, although in his mid-eighties at the time. 

The funding from the YSP funded the purchase of some radio transmitters which allowed me to do a radio tracking study of the sparrows in Bristol, which confirmed just how sedentary they are when breeding - often no more than 50-100m from their capture location. It also got me a fair few funny looks when walking past bus stops in rush hour in full radio tracking gear!"

I felt really lucky to have a supervisor at BTO. I was able to visit BTO on several occasions, and benefited not just from their new ideas and extensive expertise, but also from a fresh perspective on academic research outside of the University atmosphere. Working with real-world data collected by volunteers nationally was a wonderful opportunity, and to do so under the mentorship of BTO staff enabled me to learn and achieve so much more. Dr Phillipa Gullett 

Dr Phillipa Gullett

Phillipa, from Sheffield University is a recent recipient of support from the Young Scientists' Programme.  Working with Dr Rob Robinson, BTO’s Associate Director of Research, she looked at a 19-year study of a Long-tailed Tit population to determine the impact of weather during the breeding season on productivity and recruitment into the population.  The findings published in the Journal of Avian Biology showed that high temperatures in March resulted in fewer chicks fledging whilst high temperatures in May had a positive impact on the population.

Jennifer Border
Dr Jenni Border 

Dr Jenni Border

Another study by Dr Jenni Border (Lancaster) used the Salisbury Plain Whinchat population to explore the potential to use freely available landscape scale data to model suitable habitat for a species and thereby guide conservation planning.  Her first paper investigates the consistency of habitat relationships at different spatial scales. Border, J. A., Henderson, I. G., Redhead, J. W., & Hartley, I. R. 2016. Habitat selection by breeding Whinchats Saxicola rubetra at territory and landscape scales. Ibis. DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12433

Jenni’s second paper examines the model of breeding Whinchats  in a stable English population, which suggested that a high rate of immigration counterbalanced the predicted decline that should have been caused by high nest predation and low apparent survival of first-year birds.

Characterising demographic contributions to observed population change in a declining migrant bird. Journal of Avian Biology, 48

Jenni says:  “I really benefited both in my PhD and more generally in my career from having a BTO supervisor. It gave me access to an incredible wealth of knowledge and expertise, from my supervisor and from many other staff at the BTO too, who were all keen to help. I particularly found it useful to give a seminar at the BTO during my 2nd year, which gave me experience of presenting to an audience of ornithological experts which I could not get at my university. The discussions which staff afterwards really helped to shape my PhD. BTO staff are still happy to provide support, help and advice, and have been integral to me successfully publishing two papers from my PhD so far.”

Jenni is now working for the BTO as a Senior Research Ecologist.

Harry Ewing. Sam Franks

Harry Ewing

Harry Ewing is currently undertaking a three-year study on the Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata), the UK’s most threatened breeding wader. The number of breeding pairs has decreased by 48% in the last 20 years. Broad-scale threats are generally thought to act on curlew populations during the breeding season and include agricultural intensification and an increased abundance of generalist predators. [Need photo]  BTO Research Ecologist, Dr Sam Franks, is supervising Harry’s project.

Harry says:  "I have been provided with excellent support with all aspects of my project. I regularly see my BTO supervisors for discussions and I have been provided with great logistical support and help sourcing equipment. In addition, I have been given temporary desk space at BTO, which has been useful for admin tasks and printing. I am also regularly accompanied in the field by my supervisors and other staff at BTO, including outside of normal office hours."

"BTO also provides me with financial support which, this year, I have used for covering the cost of travel between Thetford and the University of East Anglia. Overall, everyone at BTO has been very helpful and support has been given whenever I have asked for it and often, without me having to ask."

Samantha Franks
I've really welcomed the opportunity to supervise my first PhD student. It's been extremely rewarding being able to actively contribute to the development of promising young scientists, and helping to guide them through the ups and downs of a PhD. Closer ties with the partner university and research department has been an extra bonus, and my own creative thinking and approach to problem solving has absolutely benefited from regular interactions with this academic environment. Dr Sam Franks 

Liam Langley

Liam Langley from Exeter University is studying The conservation conundrum of gulls: How do you develop a management strategy for nuisance species of conservation concern? He is being supported by Dr Niall Burton, BTO Head of Wetland & Coastal Marine Research, and others in the team.

Liam has drafted three chapters, which will form the basis of papers, reviewing the effects of anthropogenic change and urbanisation on large gull populations, assessing the impacts of recent changes in landfill closures on the movements of Lesser Black-backed Gulls breeding in northwest England and comparing the breeding ecology of urban and coastal breeding Lesser Black-backed Gulls. His PhD draws from data from BTO’s gull tracking programme. Liam aims to submit his PhD at the end of the year. 

Liam says: "The opportunity to work in collaboration with Niall Burton and members of his team on my data analysis has provided a valuable breadth of insight and opinion that other students working solely with university-based research groups don’t have access to. This has allowed me to learn more varied approaches to analysing spatial data in particular, and I think this has improved the overall quality of my project. I’ve also really enjoyed making visits to the BTO HQ in Thetford and getting an insight into potential career avenues at a research-focused NGO.

In the next 5+ years I hope to successfully complete my PhD, publish my thesis chapters as academic papers in peer-reviewed journals and pursue a career in ornithological research, likely via Post-doctoral research positions within academia. I also have an interest in working as research staff for a conservation NGO which represents an alternate career path that I may pursue depending on the opportunities available."

Support the Young Scientist' Programme

Each studentship can cost up to £14,000 over four years: this would include BTO supervision at £2,000 pa and possibly a bursary of £1,000 and travel costs of around £500. We are incredibly proud of everything the students we have supported have achieved and look forward to developing the careers of many more. Please help us to invest in the future of the next generation by donating to the Denis Summers-Smith Tribute Fund.

Donate to support the programme

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