Fully funded PhD opportunities in Earth Sciences - Murujuga Rock Art Monitoring Project

Candidates are sought for geoscience-related PhD scholarships currently available at Curtin University. These scholarships are associated with a multi-year, State Government funded, interdisciplinary project studying the geology and ancient petroglyphs of the Burrup Peninsula and Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia's Pilbara coast.

Project background

The Murujuga Rock Art Monitoring Project is developing best-practice strategies to detect and monitor natural and anthropogenically-driven weathering and degradation of culturally significant rock art, for which the area is renowned and proposed for World Heritage and developing an environmental quality management framework to protect the rock art for future generations. Major project partners include Curtin University, the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, and Calibre Engineering.

Preliminary work has shown that the geochemical and textural characteristics of the patina that hosts the rock art are dependent on the microbiome, organic geochemistry of the rock surface, and the geochemistry and textural characteristics of the underlying fresh and partially weathered rock. Best-practice investigation of the rock surfaces requires the development of techniques using the cutting-edge instrumentation at the John de Laeter Centre and WA-Organic and Isotope Geochemsitry Centreat Curtin University, Western Australia. For example, a relatively new time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectroscopy (TOF-SIMS) instrument has the potential to map heavy and light elements at high spatial resolution, and to link the distributions of organic and inorganic components of the rock, but some technique development is required to produce a robust repeatable analytical technique. Additionally, novel isotopic techniques have the potential to provide new constraints on the timescales of rock weathering and to distinguish between natural and anthropogenically-driven degradation.

A number of PhD scholarships are available within this multidisciplinary project. The project funding will cover PhD stipends, fieldwork where relevant, analytical, travel and publication costs. The provisional list of projects is as follows:

  1. Imaging SIMS for the analysis of rock patina: This project will develop methods, and then use, the new TOF-SIMS instrument to characterise the rock patina and link its characteristics to environmental parameters. Lead supervisor: A/Prof. Will Rickard (https://staffportal.curtin.edu.au/staff/profile/view/william-rickard-4f3f194a/).
  2. Novel isotopic analysis to determine time frames of rock surface alteration: This project will use a range of isotopic techniques, potentially including Pu analyses, to constrain the timelines of rock alteration, patina formation, and rock art weathering and degradation. Lead supervisor: A/Prof. Will Rickard (https://staffportal.curtin.edu.au/staff/profile/view/william-rickard-4f3f194a/).
  3. Investigation of organics and stable isotopes of Australian native plant emissions and environmental samples. Land plants yield an extensive range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including terpenoids and green leaf volatiles. In this project a range of VOCs emitted from more than 20 Australian indigenous plant species collected from the Murujuga World Heritage National Park in WA will be investigated by thermal desorption gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and purge and trap gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and compound specific isotopes analyses (C and H). This project will involve field sampling and significant method development to fingerprint a range of natural occurring VOCs from native Australian plants Lead Supervisor: Professor Kliti Grice Home, WAOIGC, geochemistry - Western Australian Organic & Isotope Chemistry | Curtin University, Perth, Australia.
  4. Investigation of the rock surface microbiome as a potential contributor to rock art weathering. This project aims to investigate if air pollutants stimulate the growth of bacteria and/or fungi that produce acidic metabolites (i.e., organic acids), which may ultimately cause the dissolution of uncarved rock patina. This will then create a loss of contrast between the rock carvings and the surrounding rock and obscure the rock art. This interdisciplinary project will make use of advanced cultivation as well as cultivation-independent molecular biological approaches (incl. bioinformatics and biostatistics) to characterise the environmental parameters (i.e., metadata obtained as a group effort) that play a significant role in shaping the composition and functioning of the rock surface microbiome using samples that have been obtained across environmental gradients at Murujuga during dry and wet seasons. Lead Supervisor: Associate Professor: Marco Coolen Home, WAOIGC, geochemistry - Western Australian Organic & Isotope Chemistry | Curtin University, Perth, Australia.

Selection criteria

We are seeking highly motivated, results-driven PhD candidates capable of working independently and as a part of the multidisciplinary Rock Art Monitoring team. The successful applicants will conduct research using the state-of-the-art analytical facilities at Curtin University and partner institutions in Western Australia. Candidates should demonstrate excellent communication skills and cultural awareness to facilitate achievement of the research outcomes. Prior experience in SEM-based petrological, geochemical and relevant organic, microbiome, and isotopic techniques will be highly regarded and should be addressed in the application.

Eligibility criteria (essential)

Applicants must fulfil all eligibility requirements for admission into Higher Degree Research at Curtin University.

  • The applicants must have a BSc Honours (1st class) or Master (by research) in appropriate disciplines by the time of appointment. These are multi-disciplinary projects, so the range of appropriate disciplines is broad, but please use the one-page statement to match your experience to the project that you are applying for.
  • The applicants must meet the University's English language requirements.

How to apply

Applications should contain:

  • CV and copy of academic transcripts
  • a one-page statement that addresses the selection criteria and a rationale for the preferred choice of the project
  • contact details of two referees.
  • The preferred project, and an indication of whether you would like to be considered for other projects.

Complete applications in the form of a single pdf should be submitted via e-mail to Will Rickard (w.rickard@curtin.edu.au) for projects 1 and 2 on novel analytical techniques, Kliti Grice (kliti.grice@curtin.edu.au) for project 3 on the organic geochemistry, and Marco Coolen (marco.coolen@curtin.edu.au) for project 4 on the microbiome.

The deadline for applications is 10th September 2022. Late applications will be considered if the positions have not been filled. It is expected that successful applicants start as soon as possible, but visas and travel arrangements can commonly take several months to work through for international candidates.

Only shortlisted candidates will be invited for an online interview and the successful applicants will be informed about the enrolment processes at Curtin University.

Contact details

If you have a query in relation to the application process please contact the relevant supervisor for your project (see above).

About Curtin

You will form part of a team within TiGeR (The Institute for Geoscience Research) at Curtin University. Curtin is a dynamic, research-intensive University that has achieved national and international stature. Earth Sciences, and the sub-disciplines of Geology and Geochemistry, were awarded the maximum ranking of 5 in the recent Excellence in Research for Australia assessment. These factors, coupled with recent successes in ARC grants and University investment will ensure that the successful candidates will be hosted within a vibrant research environment and will receive exceptional training. Candidates can expect to work in close association with our industry, government, and traditional owner partners throughout this project.

Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at Curtin

We are committed to ensuring that Curtin has an inclusive environment, free from harassment, in which all students, staff and the community feel respected, valued and welcome.

We encourage applications from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with disability, women, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and are committed to making reasonable adjustments to enable people with disability to participate fully in our recruitment, selection and appointment processes.

We have received recognition in this area:

  • Voted one of Australia's Inclusive Employers by the Diversity Council of Australia.
  • One of the first Universities to receive accreditation for an 'Elevate' Reconciliation Action Plan.
  • Athena Swan Bronze Accreditation
  • 16th best workplace for new dads in Australia (HBF - Direct Advice for Dads, 2019)


Curtin reserves the right at its sole discretion to withdraw from the recruitment process, not to make an appointment, or to appoint by invitation, at any time. We reserve the right to remove the advert earlier than the date on the advert.

posted: 10 August 2022     Please mention EARTHWORKS when responding to this advertisement.