PhD Programme in Agriculture, Food and Environment

State of the art

In comparison to a few decades ago, agricultural science has made important steps towards aligning its paradigms to sustainability principles. The limits of industrial agriculture – based on oil-based external inputs and on extreme specialization – are now largely recognized, as well as the positive value of agriculture-related ecosystem services. Nevertheless, in the next decade agricultural science will face new and important challenges. A large share of European food is still produced with unsustainable techniques – intensive livestocks, monocultures, excessive use of water, energy and chemicals – and at global level the quality and quantity of natural resources necessary to food production is being eroded. Population increase and dietary transitions are putting agricultural systems under pressure. Climate change raise concerns about the resilience of the food systems also in western countries and urges for adaptation and mitigation strategies. The ‘bioeconomy revolution’, based on strong advancements in the processes turning biomass into bioproducts, has raised concerns about potential conflict on resource use between food and non-food.

As a result of COP21 and Sustainable Development goals agreements, agriculture in the next decades will have to reduce consistently its environmental footprint, improve food quality (first of all its nutritional quality), guarantee a decent income to agricultural producers and contribute to keep rural areas alive. A wide range of emerging new technologies – based on life science, information technologies, robots, renewable energies -are being proposed to contribute to these goals, but at the same time there is an emerging need – already acknowledged in international bodies – to develop new innovation pathways based on agro-ecological principles, largely overlooked by the ‘green revolution’.

The PhD program

The PhD program of Agriculture, Food and Environment is a three-year post-graduate research course at the homonymous department (DAFE) of the University of Pisa. The University of Pisa (UNIPI) is one of the most important universities in Italy and has a long tradition of excellence in terms of education and scientific research. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment is dedicated to research at the frontiers of agricultural, food and agro-environmental sciences. The Director of DAFE is currently Prof. Marcello Mele (direttoredisaaa@unipi.it) and the teaching staff consists of 68 professors and researchers.

The PhD program moves from the awareness that food sustainability is a goal to be achieved through a set of activities that range from production to consumption, involves a myriad of actors and mobilizes natural and human-made resources. Focus on sustainability implies that specialization of agricultural science, necessary to deal with increasing complexity, is accompanied by a strong commitment to take into account systemic implications, including unintended consequences of given technological solutions.

The Phd program also moves from the awareness that sustainability is a multidimensional concept, and that its assessment can be carried out against a multeplicity of criteria, namely environmental, social, economic, and health-related, so that the choice between technological trajectories may face trade-offs, contradictions, different perspectives and interests. For this reason, a large involvement of stakeholders in the definition of sustainability goals, research goals and methods is needed.

Aims and scope

Given these premises, the Phd course has as central theme ‘Food sustainability’ and can be ascribed to the EC “Food 2030” strategy. It refers to different ERC areas as LS9 (Applied Life Sciences), LS2 (Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics and Systems Biology), SH3 (Environment, Space and Population), SH1 (Individuals, Institutions and Markets). The course aims at training researchers with an up-to-date, excellent disciplinary ground and with a deep understanding of the systemic implications of their specific field of activity and awareness of the importance of mutual learning with enterprises, administrations and civil society.

To this purpose, we have built an interdisciplinary program combining agricultural sciences with a selected range of biological disciplines. Its scope is articulated around three main areas:

  • biological basis of food sustainability
  • sustainability of food production systems
  • food quality and safety

The Phd program will encourage the development of a common systemic approach through its training program, which will be centered upon the principles of sustainability science, and through its partnership strategy. In this sense, specific agreements with external institutions (Italian National Research Council, F.A.O.) and also with some firms (as for example ABOCA s.r.l.) are established for specific research themes, with double (university and external institution) supervision.

PhD Program overview

The Doctorate Board includes 20 professors at the University of Pisa and five senior scientists at research institutes and universities in Italy or abroad. Currently, more than 40 PhD students are attending the course or are waiting for the final examination; thirteen students come from overseas universities.

The Doctorate Board for the academic year 2021-2022 is composed as follows:

Faculty members: Monica Agnolucci, Luciana Angelini, Iduna Arduini, Gianluca Brunori, Angelo Canale; Andrea Cavallini, Riccardo Gucci, Lorenzo Guglielminetti, Giacomo Lorenzini, Andrea Lucchi, Rossano Massai, Marco Mazzoncini, Marcello Mele, Lucia Natali, Alberto Pardossi, Elisa Pellegrini, Laura Pistelli, Michele Raffaelli, Annamaria Ranieri, Andrea Serra, Angela Zinnai.

External experts: Allison Marie Loconto (INRA, France), Beatrice Pezzarossa (CNR, Pisa), Barbara Ruffoni (CREA, Sanremo), Andrea Scartazza (CNR, Pisa).

The PhD program essentially consists in conducting an original research work under supervision and writing a dissertation (thesis) concerning the following topics:

  • food science and technology;
  • genomics, proteomics and metabolomics of species of agricultural interest;
  • multifunctional agriculture;
  • plant and animal production systems, even in urban environment;
  • plant physiology, ecology and biochemistry;
  • plant, animal and microbial biotechnologies;
  • technologies for plant and soil protection and environmental bioremediation.

Each PhD student is supported by a supervisor at DAFE. An opponent is assigned to PhD students at the beginning of the course. The official language of the PhD course is English.

Activities planned during the PhD course (2021/2024, XXXVII cycle)

The PhD students participate in educational activities such as courses, seminars, summer schools and congresses organized by the University of Pisa or other institutions in Italy or abroad, following a tailor-made training plan aimed at achieving in-depth knowledge of specific scientific issues and improving general skills.

In particular, during the first year, the PhD students will attend courses and seminars organized in part by the University of Pisa for all its PhD students and in part by the PhD itself, which will offer specific courses for its students.

The so-called “transversal” activity, organized by the University of Pisa for all its PhD students, will include a “Scientific English” course, an “Open Science and Research Data Management” course, a “Statistics for research” course, a “Computer Tools for Research” course, a “Research Promotion” course, and a “Responsible Research and Innovation” course. These courses should be held in the period January-June 2022, with possible variations related to the trend of the pandemic.

PhD students in Agricultural, Food and Agro-environmental Sciences will also attend some ad hoc organized courses, such as “Fundamentals of Statistics for Agricultural Research” (held by Prof. G. Conte, in March-April 2022), “Publishing in International Scientific Journals” (held by Dr. G. Benelli, in June 2022), and “Innovative methodologies in Agricultural Sciences” (which will be held by a teacher yet to be established, in October 2022).

All the PhD students will be invited to spend at least six months in renowned research institutes abroad during the second and/or third year of the course.

At the end of each year, each PhD student prepares a report on his/her academic and research activities and holds a public seminar, which will be evaluated and approved by the Doctorate Board.

At the end of the course, the thesis (in English) will be preliminary evaluated by two external referees belonging to other Universities in Italy or abroad. Finally, the PhD degree will be awarded after a public examination in the form of defense of the dissertation in front of a committee, which is appointed by the Doctorate Board.

From 2019 to 2021, PhD students at DAFE have published more than 300 articles, including research or review papers in peer-reviewed journals or in conference proceedings. In total, these papers were cited nearly 800 times.

Applications

The admission call for 2021 will be open at the end of April and the selection will take place in early June/July. The candidates should check the website  regularly for additional information on application, in particular on the date and the venue of interview.

Candidates are required to have a Master’s degree and have to demonstrate good knowledge of the research themes reported above. The Doctorate Board establishes a number of research lines available each year for PhD students, which are listed below.

The number of graduates students admitted to the course varies from year to year depending on the number of grants available and the results of the selection process.

The last year (cycle XXXVI, 2020-2023) nine grants were available, one of which was reserved for candidates who completed their Master’s Degree abroad.

A grant consists of a stipend of approx. € 13,600 per year (including social security contribution) for the whole duration of the PhD program (3 years maximum). The grant is increased by 50% if the student does an internship (at least 15 days) abroad in a foreign academic or research institution. After the first year, each candidate receives an annual research contribution of approximately € 1,600.

The selection of PhD candidates will be based on their educational (f.i., average exam grade, final numerical grade for the entire degree, honor etc.) and scientific (publications, positions as young scientist, stage abroad etc.) curriculum and on an interview conducted on their master thesis and in one of the research lines available each year for PhD students, which will be reported on this webpage as soon as delivered by the Doctorate Board.

Candidates may also be admitted, at any time, under the supernumerary category if they hold a grant funded by the European Union or, in the case of non-EU citizens, by their country of origin.

2021 Research Lines

The research lines available for the 2021 PhD program are as follows:

  • Edible woody species in urban environment: between cultural roots and new opportunities for ecosystem services
  • Influence of climate change on crops and plant communities: response to waterlogging and drought
  • Genetic variability analyses by genotyping-by-sequencing of Ficus carica cultivars from the Mediterranean basin
  • A multidisciplinary study on wild Mediterranean halophytes and on their possible use as fresh or minimally-processed vegetables
  • Molecular and functional diversity of microorganisms for sustainable production of healthy foods
  • Modern technologies for the sustainable conservation of vegetables and their nutraceutical properties
  • Sustainable maintenance of turfgrasses with the use of latest generation electric mowers and autonomous robotic mowers
  • Maintaining nutraceutical quality and extending shelf life of fruits and vegetables  using  sustainable approaches in pre- and  of post-harvest
  • A multi-omics approach to investigate the interaction among wheat, Fusarium spp. and Trichoderma gamsii underpinning the biological control of Fusarium head blight
  • Sustainable production of animal products: evaluation of new strategies to reduce the environmental impact
  • Next generation oil and wine: new processes involving development and application of IoT microsensors and clouding
  • Biological and integrated management of insect pest of grape)

Other three research lines are granted by specific applications (see Application):

  • Data-driven agriculture and digital ecosystems: the role of technical assistance
  • Analysis of the economic, social and environmental impacts of innovative technologies for protected crops in the regions of the Mediterranean basin
  • Modulation of phenylpropanoid branches by monochromatic lights and controlled abiotic stress conditions in economically relevant horticultural species

Contacts

  • Coordinator: Prof. Andrea Cavallini, DAFE,
    via Del Borghetto 80, 56124 Pisa (Italy)Tel. +39 050 2216 663; email: phd_coordinator@agr.unipi.it
  • Secretariat: Dr. Stefano Fanti, DAFE,
    via Del Borghetto 80, 56124 Pisa (Italy)Tel. +39 050 2216 083; email: stefano.fanti@unipi.it