Joint Graduate School in Coastal and Marine Science

Research projects available to students

Some of our staff are looking for postgraduate students to join their research groups and offer pre-defined topics to students. If you are looking for a topic for your Masters or PhD thesis, browse through the list of available topics below.

In case you can't find a suitable topic, feel free to contact our academic staff directly to discuss your ideas.

Topics currently available to students

Research topic Level Supervisor/s

Patterns in water environments - ripples and dunes
Bedform development is a complex process that involves an understanding of the interactions that occur between sediment particles and the mechanisms created by the flow that interacts with them. By undertaking experiments in a controlled laboratory environment, we can specifically analyse the various interactions that produce and enhance bedform development. There are various parameters that influence the formation of bedform patterns, and the project's objectives are to improve our understanding of the processes and parameters.

This project would suit both engineering and science students. The student will do experimental work in the Hydraulic Engineering Laboratory and become an expert in statistical pattern analysis.


Dr Heide Friedrich and Associate Professor Giovanni Coco

See, Water-worked Environment Research Group

Investigating the resilience of kelp forests to sedimentation and climate change 
Kelp forests represent highly valuable coastal ecosystems that provide food and shelter for a myriad of other species. However, these ecological services are threatened by a variety of human-induced stressors, and climate change is expected to exacerbate these effects. Recent research has indicated that while the resilience of kelp forests may be affected by increasing temperature these effects are likely to be compounded severely by existing anthropogenic factors such as reduced water clarity due to sedimentation. In New Zealand, sedimentation is considered a major threat to coastal ecosystems that is likely to increase with climate change.

The proposed research program will utilise the unique physical setting of the Hauraki Gulf to explore how the resilience of the kelp Ecklonia radiata is impacted by coastal sedimentation. A comparative experimental approach will be used whereby kelp removals will be carried out across a sedimentation gradient, and the recovery of kelp monitored. In addition, analogous removals will be carried out in both warmer and cooler parts of New Zealand to explore the role of temperature in determining the resilience of this important kelp species. The student will be expected to further develop and examine related research questions on the ecological function, productivity and resilience of kelp in New Zealand. This research will also contribute to the Kelp Ecosystems Ecology Network (KEEN;, which aims to assess the impacts of global change on kelp forests worldwide. Consequently, there will also be opportunities to collaborate with other KEEN researchers and students, and carry out similar research on kelps in other parts of the world.

The scholarship consists of a stipend of $25,000 per annum tax-free and also covers University of Auckland PhD fees. The duration of the scholarship is three and a half years (maximum).

Applicants for this project should hold a first class MSc or honours degree, or equivalent. They should include evidence of qualifications (academic transcript) and research experience, together with a curriculum vitae and contact details of two academic referees. Applications should be supported by a cover letter that states why the candidate is interested in the position and how their qualifications are suited to the proposed research.

The project will involve SCUBA diving so the applicant should have relevant experience in research diving and at a minimum be qualified to Rescue Diver. The PhD position will be based at the recently refurbished Leigh Marine Laboratory.

PhD Dr Nick Shears

Mussel sex determination genetics 
Mechanisms of sex determination in the phylum Mollusca are currently poorly understood. What is known is that in many [perhaps all?] molluscan taxa, gonadal sex is largely genetically determined. In most molluscs that have been studied, sex determination involves multiple (estimated as approx. five) loci in contrast to the simple, well-characterised chromosome-based system of mammals and birds. One potential consequence of this genetic complexity is that while the population-level sex ratio may be 1:1, within individual families the sex ratio may be highly skewed depending on the genotypes of one or both parents at the sex-determining loci. This would make sex ratio behave more like a polygenic, quantitative trait than a categorical Mendelian one and make it possible to change sex ratio through selective breeding. This MSc project will extend these observations to a commercially important bivalve mollusc, the greenshell mussel, (Perna canaliculus) in which sex ratio is economically important because consumers prefer female mussels with orange-coloured meats over cream-colored males. The project will take advantage of an on-going selective breeding program for P. canaliculus at the Cawthron Institute (Nelson) that regularly produces large cohorts of fully pedigreed families suitable for rigorous genetic analysis. The project is technically simple. The first objective is to develop a fast and robust technique to histologically stain mussel gonads so that sperm or eggs can be confidently identified. Once developed, this technique / assay will then be applied to ca. n = 40 individuals from >50 P. canaliculus families, and these data will be used in quantitative genetic analyses to estimate the heritability of gender and its genetic correlations with other economically important traits. If the results are promising enough, this project has the potential to be extended into a PhD project which will take this work further and characterize the sex determination loci in P. canaliculus and their mode(s) of action.

This project will be based at the Cawthron Institute, Nelson and will be co-supervised by Dr Andrew Fidler and Dr Mark Camara, an experienced bivalve geneticist.


Dr Andrew Fidler

Dr Mark Camara

Shellfish are people too: bivalve behavioural syndromes 
In recent years behavioural ecologists have become more aware of the role of animal ‘personalities’ or ‘behavioural syndromes’ in influencing life history traits. Indeed such behavioural syndromes have been observed, and quantified, in a very wide range of taxa – including invertebrates. Perhaps most attention has been focussed on the bold / shy behavioural continuum and its influence on survival and reproductive success. Bivalve molluscs are an ideal group in which to study the genetics and ecology of bold / shy personality types - because of the sessile nature of the adults and their having a very limited behavioural range that can be quantified in real-time. In addition to its inherent interest the knowledge arising from this study may find application in aquaculture, in as much as behaviour influences shellfish feeding and growth rates.

This project would suit a student of independent nature, with lots of energy, good practical skills (eg working with aquaria and water pipes) and an interest in doing pioneering research.

The experimental part of this project will be based at the University of Auckland’s marine laboratory at Leigh and will be co-supervised by Dr Andrew Fidler and Prof Andrew Jeffs.

MSc / PhD

Dr Andrew Fidler

Prof Andrew Jeffs

Formation of chimeric colonies by an invasive colonial tunicate

The highly invasive colonial tunicate Didemnum vexillum produces large biofouling colonies only when growing outside its native range of the north-west Pacific ocean. Thus it appears that Didemnum vexillum provides a very promising model in which to investigate both biological and population genetic aspects of phenotypic traits critical in marine bioinvasion. Previous research has shown that Didemnum vexillum in New Zealand has reduced genetic diversity when compared with Japan and that this reduction is associated with an enhanced probability that randomly selected colonies will be genetically similar enough to fuse. The proposed MSc project will build on this earlier work by investigating the formation and frequency of chimeric Didemnum vexillum colonies in both New Zealand and its native range (Japan). The findings are likely to provide additional insights, at both the population genetic and organismal levels, into traits influencing the invasiveness of marine invertebrates. Such insights may assist in managing the risks that non-native marine invertebrates present to New Zealand’s aquaculture industry and native coastal ecosystems.

This project would suit a student with a solid grounding in molecular genetics and an interest in adaptive evolution.

The experimental part of this project will be carried out at the Cawthron Institute, Nelson and will be supervised by Dr Andrew Fidler.


Dr Andrew Fidler

Detecting environmental toxicants using tunicate xenobiotic receptors as ‘sensor elements’ 
Xenobiotic receptors are ligand activated nuclear receptors that regulate the transcription of a range of detoxification-related genes. Vertebrate xenobiotic receptors display considerable inter-taxa variation in their ligand binding domain (LBD) sequences suggesting adaptive evolution to enhance the binding of xenobiotics typically encountered in the diet of the corresponding organism. Tunicates occupy an intriguing evolutionary position, with adult tunicates being both marine filter-feeders and members of the phylum Chordata. Genomes of the tunicates Ciona intestinalis and Botryllus schlosseri both encode at least two xenobiotic receptor orthologues. Pursuing the idea that xenobiotic receptors may adaptively evolve to bind toxic chemicals commonly present in the organism’s environment / diet, we have utilised the ligand binding properties of tunicate xenobiotic receptors to develop a recombinant yeast based bioassay ‘platform’ for detecting marine xenobiotics. Such bioassays are activated by natural marine biotoxins and a range of compounds containing aromatic / benzene ring structures. The proposed project will use these bioassays to detect environmental toxicants / pollutants from putatively contaminated sites around New Zealand’s coast. The first project objective will be to determine how effectively the bioassays are activated by pollutants petroleum hydrocarbons. Following on from this objective chemicals and environmental extracts from polluted sites around New Zealand’s coast will be tested in the bioassay.

This project would suit a student with a solid grounding in biochemistry / molecular biology and an interest in ecotoxicology.

The experimental part of this project will be based at the Cawthron Institute, Nelson and will be co-supervised by Drs Andrew Fidler and Louis Tremblay.

Summer Research Scholarship / possible MSc Dr Andrew Fidler

Dr Louis Tremblay

Chlorophyll microstructure  (Biomechanics) 
Turbulence is a strong driver of phytoplankton growth and decay in ocean surface waters. Our knowledge of why has evolved from integrated measurements. Only recently have tools become available to measure chlorophyll at anything like the resolution of turbulence. The project would seek to connect chlorophyll variability to turbulence using some recently collected of data sets from a variety of locations. The student would learn much about spatio-temporal data analysis techniques.
PhD Assoc Prof Craig Stevens
Erebus Glacier Tongue evolution (Antarctica) 
Acomputational analysis of the lifespan of the Erebus Glacier Tongue combining a number of existing data sets and freeze thaw algorithms to look at how the glacier grows and shrinks in its 100 yr lifecycle. The student would learn about interfacing glaciology and oceanography.
MSc Assoc Prof Craig Stevens
Melting icebergs, double diffusion and internal waves  (Antarctica) 
When ice melts in a salt-stratified solution diffusive convective layers are set up. The thickness of these layers are in part controlled by the turbulent boundary layer. So what happens when internal waves drive this boundary-layer? This laboratory-based project would interfacing glaciology and oceanography.
MSc Assoc Prof Craig Stevens
Cook Strait tidal analysis  (Cook Strait) 
We have recently recovered the first long term multi-position ADCP data from Cook Strait and so for the first time get a decent look at the tides in the Strait – they are different to the paradigm. The project would run standard tidal analyses on these unique and important data. The paper from this study will be cited heavily.
MSc – but this data set has a number of strands that would suit a PhD if combined Assoc Prof Craig Stevens

Benefits of Operational Oceanography for Cook Strait Ferries (Cook Strait) 
The project would be a desktop study seeking to quantify benefits in fuel savings if they were to utilize HF radar operational products (which don’t exist yet) which would provide 30 minute estimates of surface currents and waves.

MSc/PhD Assoc Prof Craig Stevens
Kelp as a bio-degradable wave energy device (Marine Energy) 
Wave energy devices will likely suffer greatly from storm damage. Having large bits of metal wash up will be a bad look for the industry. Is there are a way to use kelps to act as the reactor element so that in the event of destruction the impact on the environment is minimal?
MSc/PhD Assoc Prof Craig Stevens
Buoyant kelp in the wave swept zone (Biomechanics) 
Durvillaea antarctica is unique to NZ and by all accepted models of the intertidal is all wrong. It’s too big! Its trick is buoyancy – it seems to surf the waves. Can a simple model be built of a floating element in a wave zone that can turn the buoyancy on and off?
MSc/PhD Assoc Prof Craig Stevens
Marine Macroalgae 
Projects on marine macroalgae can include a range of approaches – with a focus on deepening understanding and contributing to knowledge of the flora - including systematics, ecology, life histories, and with work on native and introduced species.
MSc/PhD Prof Wendy Nelson
  • Systematics and ecology of Melanthalia in NZ
  • Identity of introduced Gracilaria in Manukau Harbour
  • Systematics & ecology of NZ Curdiea species
MSc/PhD Prof Wendy Nelson
Description and characterisation of NZ species Ulva, Umbraulva and Gemina
MSc/PhD Prof Wendy Nelson
Coralline algae
  • Rhodolith ecology and responses to human induced changes
  • Systematics and ecology of selected NZ coralline algae (both geniculate and non-geniculate species)
MSc/PhD Prof Wendy Nelson
Life histories, ecology and systematics of NZ species (many undescribed species requiring characterisation)
MSc/PhD Prof Wendy Nelson
Systematics of NZ taxa – many genera to work on including Polysiphonia, Ceramium
MSc/PhD Prof Wendy Nelson
Revision of the genus in NZ – both branched and prostrate species
MSc/PhD Prof Wendy Nelson

Biological Oceanography of Nelson Bays 
The Nelson Bays are an iconic waterway in New Zealand’s maritime region, supporting numerous natural amenities including Abel Tasman National Park, important conservation areas, substantial wild commercial and recreational fisheries (e.g., for scallops, snapper) and aquaculture (for mussels). All of these are supported by its oceanographic ecosystem services including its nutrient supply and its primary productivity. However, apart from studies made locally to the inner bays, relatively little is known of their connectivity of the bays to wider-scale oceanography, particularly its relationships with Cook Strait waters offshore and how these affect the bay’s ecosystem services.

This project will exploit a number of existing datasets which explore these relationships, including seasonal, wide-scale ocean surveys, moored instrument deployments, data from buoys and remotely sensed (satellite) information. There will be opportunity to interpret the results in context of biophysical ocean models undertaken within NIWA.

This project will suit a student with an enquiring mind, an interest in biological oceanography and with a background in physics. An interest in the resource management implications of marine environmental research is also desirable. Because the data already exist, there will not be a field component to the research. This project could also be structured to suit an MSc.

The project will be based at the University of Auckland or at NIWA Christchurch. Contact Assoc Prof John Zeldis (

PhD Assoc Prof John Zeldis

Land-ocean interactions determine coastal nutrient and carbon fluxes in the coastal zone 
The relative contribution of oceanic and terrestrial nutrient supplies to coastal embayments has a fundamental role in setting their rates of productivity, their propensity to emit or consume carbon dioxide and their resilience to over-enrichment (eutrophication). One approach for determining these transports of nutrients and carbon in the coastal zone is through the use of mass-balance budget modelling based on ocean and hydrometric (river) data. Such budgeting approaches balance conservative transport of water and salt against transport of nutrients to determine non-conservative uptake and release of carbon and nitrogen. The results are relevant at the global scale for CO2 emissions inventories and at the local scale for eutrophication issues and are of high interest to resource managers.

This project is based on existing data which provide the components of mass-balance budgets of the Hauraki Gulf region. The project would build and interpret the budgets, adding significant new knowledge to our understanding of coastal functioning in New Zealand. Because the data already exist, at least initially, there will not be a significant field component to the research. However, there will be opportunity to put the findings in a broad ecosystem context because the data were collected within a larger research programme.

This project will suit a student with an enquiring mind, an interest in oceanography and a background in chemistry and physics. An interest in the resource management implications of environmental research is also desirable.

The project will be based at the University of Auckland or at NIWA Christchurch. Contact Assoc. Prof. John Zeldis (

MSc Assoc Prof John Zeldis