Prospective students

Thank you for your interest in considering the Thomsen Lab for conducting your graduate studies at the School of Biology, University of Canterbury.

We combine experiments, surveys, analysis of long-term dataset and meta-analysis, to test how patterns in biological communities are generated and maintained and our research provides predictions on how coastal systems will respond to human stressors and recommendations for conservation strategies needed to ameliorate their impacts.

We are always on the look-out for enthusiastic and hard-working students who have a passion for marine and coastal ecology. We can offer a vibrant international research group and the opportunity and flexibility to pursue your research interests on a broad set of research topics from diverse habitats located just around Christchurch including rocky reefs, kelp beds, sedimentary estuaries, seagrass beds, saltmarshes, shellfish reefs, dunes, and sandy beaches (see the Research and Publications pages for examples of our research). These coastal systems are jam-packed with exciting high-diversity endemic and poorly-studied species, allowing graduate students to make great contributions to local, national, and international ecology.

Christchurch is a fantastic place be a student. Surrounded by diverse marine systems, mountains (with great skiing and tramping) and lakes and rivers (great fishing, swimming and water activities – if you are insensitive to waters <20 °C) at your doorstep, a modern international airport and as a central hub for the beautiful South Island of New Zealand. Following major earthquakes of 2011, the reconstructed Christchurch is today now a totally safe place to pursue a graduate career.

Potential MSc Projects

We supervise a wide range of MSc projects related to MARINE BIOLOGY, ECOLOGY and ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ANALYSIS.

  • If you have your own idea and want to study in our lab, just send an email to set up a meeting (in person or via Skype, Zoom or Hangouts).
  • If you are out of ideas, we have plenty of ‘to-do’ projects, with a few examples listed below.
  • You may get motivated to do a project by browsing through our published research papers (see PDFs under ‘Publications’) and ongoing and former student projects (see PDFs under ‘People’).
  • If you just want to learn about a particular ‘system’ or ‘problem’ we cover a variety of options including rocky systems, estuaries, seagrass beds, and kelp forests – and we work with all sorts of environmental problems and solutions including climate changes, marine heatwaves, pollution, eutrophication, invasive species, protected areas and restoration.
  • If you just want to learn modern practical techniques and skills, we cover a variety of relevant methods including – but not limited to – underwater and aerial drones, satellite analysis, species identification and quantification, biomechanical testing, grazer experiments, 3D-printing, physiological performances (like pulse amplified fluoresce), microscopy, histology, etc.

Background to MSc projects

Enrollment, tuition, and fees are typically organized and sponsored by the student, and costs associated with the research project is covered by the supervisor’s grants.

Examples of available projects-to-do

  1. RESTORATION OF UNDERWATER SEAWEED FORESTS. Large underwater seaweed forests have recently been lost from the Canterbury coast due to seismic uplifts and marine heatwaves – and more mortality events are expected in the future in both New Zealand and abroad. Natural recolonization of seaweeds is often compromised because reproductive propagules can be sparse. One way to jump-start recovery is through restoration; this project will develop and compare different transplantation and restoration methods. The project will involve both laboratory and field methods.
  2. IMPACTS OF MARINE HEATWAVES ON MARINE ECOSYSTEMS IN NEW ZEALAND. Gradually and slow rising temperatures associated with local warming are slowly changing ecosystems around the world. However, superimposed on these gradual changes are ‘heatwaves’, short burst on unusually hot conditions.  Marine heatwaves are becoming stronger and more frequent and are likely to accelerate changes to NZ marine ecosystems.  Management, conservation and fisheries therefore need to be prepared for these heatwave-associated changes to ensure sustainable usage of our seas. This project aims to study the underpinning mechanism whereby marine heatwaves have and will affect marine organisms, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in New Zealand.
  3. SEAGRASS RESTORATION, ECOSYSTEM SERVICES AND BLUE CARBON. Seagrass provide many vital ecosystem services, for example by storing carbon in sediments and thereby reduce problems associated with fossil fuel burning and CO2 emissions.  Unfortunately, seagrass beds have been dramatically reduced due to anthropogenic stressors. This project will, within a context of local population genetics, develop and compare different transplantation and restoration methods with the purpose of maximising blue carbon storage and other ecosystem services in seagrass beds in New Zealand. The project can involve both laboratory and field experiments.
  4. TURF-WARS; ARE TURFS ALWAYS VILLAINS? Small fast-growing seaweed, often referred to as ‘turfs’, are spreading worldwide as larger and slower growing canopy-forming seaweed forests are disappearing. Turfs are therefore considered villains in conservation and management. However, it is often unknown if the turfs are the ‘drivers’, ‘passengers’ or ‘back-seat-drivers’ of the observed changes. Furthermore, turfs in New Zealand are often a conglomerate of, albeit small, complex calcareous coralline species that may provide overlooked ecosystem functions, such as storing blue carbon and supporting high biodiversity. Furthermore, little are known about whatever calcareous turfs are sensitive to a global warming and oceanic acidification.  This study will, based on surveys and experiments, quantify the resilience of turf to future heat and acidification stressors and test their impacts on canopy-forming seaweed and invertebrate biodiversity.
  5. DEVELOPING TOOLS TO MANAGE AND MONITOR HEALTH OF SEAGRASS BEDS. Seagrass provide important ecosystem service as well as habitat for iconic fish, like pipefish, snappers and flounders. Seagrass are unfortunately dramatically reduced in NZ and abroad due to climate changes, habitat alterations, pollution with nutrients and sediments, and invasive species. This project will aim to identify ‘indicator species’ that represent healthy and stressed seagrass beds and tools to monitor the health of seagrass beds based on methods ranging from cm-scale hands-on-measurements to satellite measurements covering entire estuaries.
  6. OLD BEECH FOREST EPIPHYTES; OVERLOOKED HOTSPOTS OF BIODIVERSITY? Old natural forests can be hotspots for epiphytes and recent research has shown that epiphytes can provide an array of ecosystem functions and increase biodiversity. Unfortunately, little is known about their ecology in New Zealand beech forests and epiphytism is typically ignored in conservation and management programs.  The aim of this study is to quantify epiphyte abundances and test how they affect diversity of insects in two beech forest stands in Lewis Pass where all ‘host trees’ already have been tagged, identified, size-measured and geopositioned.  This project is part of a larger study with AUT collaborators, aimed to understand long term changes to beech forests in New Zealand and how to better manage them.
  7. KARENGO SEAWEED: UNDERSTANDING THEIR ECOLOGY TO INFORM RESOURCE MANEGEMENT AND COMMERCIALISATION. Many intertidal red seaweeds in the bangiales family (Pyropia, Clymene), known as ‘karengo’, are important due to their traditional indigenous use as well as their potential for commercialisation. Unfortunately, little is known about the ecology of karengo. For example, it is unknown how the species-composition of karengo differs among sites and through time and how this affects the nutritional value of this valuable resource. This project aims to address this knowledge gap by evaluating recruitment, abundance and diversity of karengo species at several sites over the course of a growing season. The project will have a significant field component and involve quantitative surveys and sampling procedures. However, karengo species are difficult to identify in the field, therefore field-based identifications will be backed up by morphological assessments of microscopic features in the laboratory and DNA sequence-based species identification using established methods. Cawthron Institute biochemists will determine the nutritional value of individuals identified during the study to provide an overview of what species are best to consume and where and when they occur.  This research will be a key component of a wider multi-disciplinary project to understand the high nutritional value and cultivation potential of Karengo.  Together, chemists, ecologists, geneticists and taxonomists undertaking this research will provide a fundamental understanding of the ecology of karengo that will be essential to managing this important natural resource and the establishment of commercial cultivation of karengo in the future.
  8. IMPACTS OF THE 2011 UNPRECEDENTED HEATWAVE ON SEAGRASS FACILITATION CASCADES IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA. Seagrasses are amongst the most important habitat-forming species in coastal ecosystems and cover 1000s of km coastline in Australia. Western Australia is the worlds hotspot of seagrass biodiversity, but this region was stressed by an extreme and unprecedented heatwave in 2011 that, in the warmest northern region killed off seagrass (and kelp) thereby causing dramatic long-lasting regime-shifts. However, possible less-dramatic impacts of the heatwave on seagrass communities in the colder temperate regions remains unexplored.  This project will revisit temperate seagrass beds that we sampled before the 2011 heatwave and, based on the new and old data, test if the heatwave affected epiphyte communities, invertebrates or the seagrass themselves.
  9. ‘HOME-AND-AWAY’; BIOGEOGRAPHICAL COMPARISON OF MARINE INVASIONS BETWEEN NEW ZEALAND AND TASMANIA.  Invasions by non-native species are amongst the largest environmental problems worldwide and are particular problematic in New Zealand because of its long biogeographical isolation.  Thousands of invasion studies have reported the biology of the non-native species in the invaded region but conveniently ‘forgotten’ to study the same species biology in its native region. This oversight dramatically impedes our understanding of invasion biology and limits our ability to manage current and new invasions. This project will address this research gap by studying marine invertebrates that have been introduced recently from NZ to Tasmania both ‘home-and-away’.  There are many different research questions that can be addressed within the scope of this project depending on the student’s interest and abilities, including genetics, physiology and ecological oriented projects.

Prospective PhD Students

Unfortunately there are currently no PhD scholarships available in our lab. However, the University of Canterbury offers competitive doctoral fellowships twice a year whose deadlines generally fall in mid-May and mid-October ( If you are interested in applying for one of these scholarships (you do need good grades to have a chance), please email Mads well in advance to express your interest and discuss a potential project and the application process.