Student projects

The following is a list of potential projects for research practicals in plant diversity, bachelor projects or master projects. However, these are only a selection of ideas and other projects are also possible, so if you have an idea for a project that addresses some aspect of biodiversity (coexistence, global change, biodiversity-functioning) then email Eric Allan to discuss it.

Research practical in plant diversity: this is worth 7.5 ECTS and is around four weeks of work. Students carry out a small research project of their own, which can involve running a greenhouse experiment, collecting data in the field (only in the spring semester), or analysing or identifying samples in the lab, e.g. insects, soil analysis. Students therefore get an overview of all stages of research, including designing a study, collecting plant ecological data, analysing data and writing a report. The report is structured like a scientific paper with introduction, methods, results and discussion. The work can be done flexibly and therefore spread out over a semester, although if you are running a greenhouse experiment you will probably have to commit to taking measurements at a certain time when plants need to be harvested.

Bachelor projects are similar to research practicals but are worth 10 ECTS and therefore constitute around 5-6 weeks of work. This allows a larger project to be carried out.

Master projects last about one year and therefore constitute a substantial research project. We welcome students following the master in ecology and evolution and the masters in climate science.

PaNDiv Experiment: direct and indirect effects of N enrichment on ecosystem functioning and pathogen communities

Who: Research practical, master student or bachelor student

With: Eric Allan and PhD students, depending on the project

Start: Spring or summer, most field work runs from beginning of May to end of August

Background: Humans are causing a range of environmental changes that threaten biodiversity and alter the services provided by ecosystems. Nitrogen (N) enrichment, from agricultural runoff or atmospheric deposition, is one of the most important environmental changes in European grasslands and it has many effects on the ecosystem. It changes soil chemistry and directly increases plant growth. At the same time, it causes loss of biodiversity, a shift towards faster growing plant species and often an increase in the abundance of herbivores and foliar fungal pathogens. Foliar fungal pathogens are abundant in grasslands, and they can reduce biomass, but we know very little about their effects on ecosystem services. All of the changes which occur with N enrichment might affect the services provided by grasslands but we still don’t know how important the different effects are and how they might interact with each other.

The study: To answer these questions, we established a large grassland field experiment to test which mechanisms explain the effect of N enrichment on ecosystem function. The experiment manipulates N addition (0, 100kg N ha-1, y-1), species richness (1, 4, 8, 20 species), functional composition (only fast growing, only slow growing or a mix of species) and fungal pathogens (foliar fungicide or not). Many ecosystem functions and services have been measured including biomass production (above and belowground), pathogen infection and herbivory, soil carbon, soil nutrients, soil respiration and litter decomposition.

Potential projects: There are many options for student projects in the experiment. For instance projects could:

  • Measure root production and respiration using ingrowth cores. These can also be used to exclude mycorrhizae to measure mycorrhizal respiration
  • Measure different fractions of soil carbon to assess effects on short and long term carbon storage
  • Use molecular methods to characterise the pathogen community and identify fungal pathogens in leaves
  • Assess functional diversity of soil microbial communities using BIOLOG plates
  • Use soils from the experiment to conduct feedback experiments in the greenhouse
  • Many other options

ROBUSTALPS Can highland cattle reduce the encroachment of Alnus viridis in Alpine pasture? (Agroscope Changins)

Highland cows

Duration : 4-5 months field work, from May 2020 to September 2020

Throughout the last decades, the reduction of agro-pastoral activities in Swiss mountain areas has determined profound landscape modifications, with extensive reforestation processes over former pastures. Nowadays, there are about 679 km² of shrub forest in Switzerland, most of them dominated by pure stands of green alder (Alnus viridis (Chaix.) D. C.), which is the most expanding shrub species across all Central Europe. The presence of this pioneer causes several negative agro-environmental conditions, such as low plant and animal diversity, nitrate and dissolved organic carbon leaching and concentration in streamlet water, soil acidification, and gaseous N losses. The ROBUSTALPS project aims to investigate specific ecological dynamics, such as botanical composition evolution and N translocation fluxes, in A.viridis-encroached pastures under the challenge of a particular grazing system targeted to reduce green alder cover. In particular, we chose to use Highland cattle to graze in areas dominated by this A. viridis, since this extremely robust breed is able to forage on A. viridis leaves and poor quality vegetation.

The project started in June 2019 for the first summer grazing period. Different Highland cattle herds were placed in four A.viridis-encroached paddocks in Switzerland and Italy for a grazing period of 30 days in each area. Botanical surveys and vegetation mapping of plant communities were carried out before Highland grazing. Highland cattle were equipped with GPS collars coupled with activity sensors during the entire grazing period, enabling us to study livestock selection for different vegetation communities and to discriminate animal activities (grazing, resting, and ruminating) in different periods. Moreover, during this first year, we were already able to observe remarkable effects produced by Highland cattle on A. viridis (eaten leaves, broken branches, damages by trampling, etc). 

During summer 2020, we aim to increase the time spent by Highland cows in the most encroached areas of green alder-encroached paddocks, by strategically placing attractive molasses-based blocks within them. With this approach, we expect to increase the impact of cows on green alder encroached patches, with an increased consumption of leaves and a mechanical destruction of branches. Since green alder leaves have a high N content, we also expect to increase N content in livestock excreta, thus generating N translocation from green alder encroached areas towards more open zones of the paddocks (livestock resting areas). In summer 2020 we will carry out botanical surveys around attractive blocks and in paired control areas to study the effects produced by livestock on vegetation. Moreover, we will also collect green alder leaves in different periods, in order to study changes in forage quality along the season and relate them with temperature sum and vegetation selection by livestock.


  • Botanical surveys around molasses-based blocks and control areas.
  • Use of livestock GPS collars and analysis of occupation patterns in paddocks.
  • Collection of green alder foliage and livestock faeces samples
  • Modeling nutrient redistribution fluxes.
  • Analysis of data on botanical surveys and on forage quality according to temperature sum.

– R and GIS background.
– Interest in botanical surveys.
– Motivation to work in summer pastures (good shape), and close to animals.
– Good capacity for teamwork.
– Oral and written English or French knowledge (French/English speaking team).

Useful information

Agroscope is an innovative research institute for agriculture and nutrition run according to the principles of New Public Management. Agroscope is part of the federal administration and is attached to the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research EAER. It has research stations at a number of sites around Switzerland but its head office is in Bern (Liebefeld).

The objectives of the Grazing System research group are to study the ecology and management of both temporary and permanent grasslands.

Do you need more information?

Reference person: Massimiliano Probo (Head of Grazing Systems).
E-mail: Phone: +41 584836018.

Agroscope logo

Aphid evolution in response to plant diversity and fertilization (PaNDiv Experiment)


With: Anne Kempel

Start: Late summer 2019

Duration: 2-3 month, followed by data analysis and writing

What: Greenhouse experiment with material from the PaNDiv Field Experiment

When plants occur at high density this is often related to a larger pathogen and insect pest infestation, likely because enemies are more likely to find and stay longer in larger patches of host plants. This higher exposure to enemies might lead to different selection pressures of plants growing in monoculture vs mixtures. Concordantly, in biodiversity experiments it has been shown that monoculture-plants differ from mixture-plants in their metabolic profile – monoculture-plants might have selected for more defended plant genotypes. At the same time, insects might also adapt to differences in host plant chemical and nutritional quality and insect populations might differ from each other depending on whether they evolved on host plants growing in monoculture or mixtures. However, much less is known on the evolutionary changes in insects due to plant diversity or fertilization. Aphids are a perfect model system to test these ideas – aphids usually hatch in spring and colonize their host plants to start new populations. These initial populations are genetically very diverse but genetic diversity has been shown to quickly decline after a while. Because of their ability to rapidly increase in numbers by asexual reproduction, different selection pressures could potentially be observed within one season.

In addition to differences in host plant quality, we would also expect that the initial larger population size of aphids colonizing host plants growing at high density, and thus a higher initial genetic diversity, might lead to a higher potential of evolution (selection) of aphids colonizing dense host plant patches, compared to aphids colonizing host plants growing at low density.

In this project we would like to explore these ideas experimentally. The PaNDiv Experiment, which factorially manipulates plant species diversity, functional composition (fast vs. slow growing species), nitrogen addition and fungicide application, offers a great possibility to select plant and aphid material originating from different backgrounds. By using aphids from different plots in the field experiment and transferring them to plants in the greenhouse we will be able to test for evolution in aphids in response to diversity and nitrogen addition.

How do soil fungi responses to global change drivers feed back on plant performance?


WithNadia Maaroufi

Who: Bachelor or master students

What: Plant-soil feedback greenhouse experiment using soil inoculum collected in the PaNDiv Experiment

Start: late summer 2021

Background: Nitrogen addition together with plant biodiversity loss and changes in plant functional composition are global changes that are known to impact ecosystem functions and services in grasslands. These global change drivers can directly affect soil properties by for instance, affecting soil nutrient balances or indirectly by impacting plant litter quantity and quality; and thus the primary resources fueling soil organisms. Soil organisms such as soil microbes (fungi and bacteria) play a critical role in regulating ecosystem processes involved in plant growth, plant litter decomposition, soil organic matter turnover and nutrient cycling. Very little is known about how the changes in soil microbial communities, in response to global change drivers, feed back to affect plant performance.

The study: The PaNDiv Experiment, which factorially manipulates nitrogen addition, plant species diversity, functional composition (fast vs. slow growing species) offers a great opportunity to study the impact of these global change drivers on plant-soil feedback in grasslands. The aim is to select plant communities that will differ in their nitrogen enrichment, biodiversity and plant functional composition and that would simulate different management practices, for example, monoculture of fast growing species used in forage crop: Lolium perenne. Soil originated from each treatment will be processed to get soil inoculates that will be used in a greenhouse experiment. Pots will be filled with sterilized soil that will be inoculated with soil microbiota originated from the selected plant communities. Pots will be planted with plant seedlings with target plant species. Plant survival, growth, above- and below-ground biomasses as well as metrics of plant-soil feedbacks will be calculated. The fungal traits: degree of fungal root colonization and pathogen infection will be measured at the end of the experiment.

Is there selection for increased plant defense in species poor plant communities?


With: Eric Allan, Seraina Cappelli

When: autumn 2019 with cuttings, spring 2020 (with seeds)

We can find plant fungal pathogens almost everywhere in the environment. They can have large effects on their hosts and as well on the whole plant community. Because of the big impacts they can have on plant communities and therefore most likely also on ecosystem services it is interesting to understand the mechanisms in plant-pathogen interactions.

For plants it is crucial to defend themselves against the pathogens. Since defense is considered to be costly, it makes sense to be well defended only when pathogen pressure is high. Mainly from agricultural studies we know, that when plants are grown at high densities the disease pressure increases due to increased encounter rates between pathogens and host (host concentration hypothesis). Also when plants grow in monocultures they suffer from more disease pressure than when they grow in polycultures. This is due to the fact that plant fungal pathogens are usually restricted to only one or a few closely related host species. Therefore it is harder for the pathogens to “find” the right host in species rich plant communities.

In the PaNDiv Experiment we have observed such density dependent pattern in infection levels. The more ground a species covers the higher it is infected by pathogens. This relationship gets steeper when the plants grow in species richer communities. We assume that this is because of selection for better defended plants in monocultures than in polycultures. This is in line with findings for plants of the long term Jena experiment. Plants with a history of growing in monoculture suffered from more infection than plants with a polyculture background under standardized greenhouse conditions. This could be explained with underlying genetic differences.

The aim of this project is to test if the monoculture plants of the PaNDiv Experiment are less susceptible to pathogens than plants from polycultures under standardized conditions.

Small project: For this you will produce clones of plants growing in communities with different species diversity (1, 4, 8, 20 species), put them in pots outside of the PaNDiv field in the grassland and observe infection levels of the plants.

Bigger project: Alternatively you can take these plants into the greenhouse and do a crossed infection study, where you try to infect the plants with infected leaf material from the field.

Instead of producing clones you can also collect seeds from the plants in the field.