Graduate Positions

PhD position in Integrative and Conservation biology at the University of Central Florida (Orlando, FL, USA)

As part of our NSF CAREER project (Award Number 1941546), we have a fully-funded PhD position available in the Parasitic Behavioral Manipulation Lab headed by Dr Charissa de Bekker in the Department of Biology at the University of Central Florida, to investigate the molecular mechanisms that fungal parasites use to manipulate ant behavior.

Background Information

Infected animals generally behave differently from healthy animals. These changes can go beyond mere sickness behaviors to reflect precise manipulations induced by parasites to increase that parasite’s chances to spread. How manipulative parasites can alter host behavior is currently unknown. The behaviorally tractable “zombie ant system” has the potential to expose the mechanisms underlying parasitic behavioral manipulation and fundamentally transform perceptions of parasite-host interactions and their behavioral ecology effects. Our lab uses these fungus-infected “zombie ants” as a model to systematically quantify disease progression and accompanying behavioral phenotypes, to determine where sickness behavior ends, where manipulation begins, and which intricate molecular mechanisms are involved.

What would you be working on?

The goal of this PhD project will be to better understand 1) how ant behavior changes throughout infection; 2) how ant and fungal tissues interact throughout this progression; 3) reveal which genes and pathways from both parasite and host give rise to behavioral phenotypes; and 4) elucidate the functions of these genes and pathways. The work that the PhD researcher will perform will span the integration of multiple technological approaches to understand how zombie-making fungi of the genus Ophiocordyceps interact with ants; from the molecular level to the behavioral output displayed by the whole organism. The integrative research activities of this project will prepare them for an increasingly cross-disciplinary STEM job market. Moreover, the project will leverage the public’s interest in zombie-making parasites to create immersive pedagogies for teaching biology to a diverse student population. As such, the PhD investigator will also be involved in the development of a research-based, educational virtual reality experience about microbial infections and insects that we plan to take to K-12 schools, museums and fairs. For more detailed information about the project, please visit the NSF website at:

Who are we looking for?

We are looking for motivated candidates who would be eager to perform integrative research that spans multiple disciplines within the broad field of biology. To be considered for this PhD position, candidates should have a strong interest in either (or al)l of the following: the molecular workings of parasite-host interactions and parasitic manipulations, ant behavior, and/or fungal biology. Having experience in live insect husbandry, quantitative behavioral analyses and programming (i.e., behavioral tracking and coding to analyze data), genomics and bioinformatics, or molecular microbiology (e.g., CRISPR-Cas technology, cloning techniques, fungal culturing and transformation) will be considered a big plus. Already having a master’s degree is also perceived as favorable, together with a good working knowledge in statistics and experimental design. It is desirable that candidates are passionate about science, creative, motivated to participate in scientific outreach and have excellent oral and written communication skills. Candidates will also need to be able to work both independently and as part of a team.

The PhD position

The position will be part of an NSF CAREER project team consisting of two PhD students and several undergraduate students. Because of the collaborative nature of our lab, the candidate will also be working with a post-doctoral scholar and a PhD student who work on closely related projects. The position will be fully funded for 4 years such that the candidate will receive a maintenance stipend, tuition fees will be covered and travel to two conferences per year will be covered.

Preferred starting date

August 1st, 2020 or later (flexible)

The Location

The University of Central Florida is an emerging preeminent research university located in metropolitan Orlando. According to U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges of 2019 guide, UCF ranks among the nation’s 10 most innovative universities. UCF is also ranked as a best-value university by Kiplinger, as well as one of the nation’s most affordable colleges by Forbes. The university confers almost 17,000 degrees each year and benefits from a diverse faculty and staff who create a welcoming environment and opportunities for all students to grow, learn and succeed. The College of Sciences is the largest college of UCF with programs spanning the natural, computational, social, and behavioral sciences. The Biology Department consists of faculty with diverse interests ranging from ecology and conservation, to evolution and genetics, and physiology and behavior. Research facilities available to students include a new insectary, curated insect collection, greenhouses, field sites close to campus as well as collaborations with field stations throughout Central Florida, a state-of-the-art genomics core facility, general molecular microbiology equipment and a range of microscopes.

How to apply?

Please send your application, or any questions related to this position, by email to charissa.debekker (at )

Your application should consist of a single merged pdf file that includes the following:

  • a full CV and publication list
  • a research statement of 1-2 pages describing your past research experience, current research interests, motivation to apply to the PhD position advertised, and why you are a suitable candidate for this project
  • the names and contact details of at least two referees
  • copies of (or links to) your publications and/or your Master’s thesis (if available).

We will begin the evaluation of candidates on March 1st, 2020 and continue until the position is filled.