Fergus McAuliffeName: Fergus Mc Auliffe

Address: School of BEES, Enterprise Centre, Distillery Fields, North Mall, Cork.

Room: 1.07a

Position: PhD Student

Supervisors: Prof. Peter Jones, Dr Pádraig Whelan

Telephone: +353-21-4904622

Email: fergus.mcauliffe@umail.ucc.ie



In 2009 I graduated with a BSc in Environmental Science at UCC (Honours 1st class). During the summer of 2008 I took part in the SFI funded Undergraduate Research Experience and Knowledge Award (UREKA). While on this program I was based between TCD and UCD. This program gave me experience of the life of a researcher and was very important to me in deciding to undertake a PhD after graduating.

In October 2009 I started studying for my PhD here in UCC. My research project is on the use of constructed wetlands in Ireland as a means for the sustainable treatment of domestic wastewater. My supervisors are Professor Peter Jones and Dr Pádraig Whelan and my funding body is the Irish Research Council.

During May 2012 I took part in a research programme on River Restoration in the Atlantic Arc. This program is jointly run by the University of Oviedo, Spain, the University of Rennes, France, and UCC. This program provided an excellent opportunity to take part in an international research program in Oviedo and to engage with local stakeholders affected by river restoration in north-west Spain.



My primary research interests lie in environmental sustainability, principally environmentally sustainable solutions to current problems. My research falls under the broad umbrella of phytoremediation/phytofiltration. This is the use of plants as a means to clean up environmentally degraded soils or waters. Many species of plants possess the ability to hyper-accumulate pollutants e.g. heavy metals, in their biomass. When grown on contaminated soils these plants uptake the metals leading to a reduction in the amount of pollutants in the soil. Plants can also be used for wastewater treatment. In wetlands, the combination of plant transpiration, soil evaporation and microbial breakdown can lead to highly efficient BOD, suspended solids, nitrate and phosphate removal.

The aim of this research is to fine-tune the novel on-site zero-discharge wastewater treatment system for domestic wastewater which is popular in Scandinavia and adapt the system to Irish climatic conditions. The research is driven by the urgent national imperative to comply with the Water Framework Directive and the Waste Directive. This system is highly relevant given the implementation of the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2012 and the need for all homeowners to have efficient wastewater treatment systems. Emphasis has been placed on developing a sustainable system with minimal energy inputs.

There are a number of central research questions:

  • Evaluation of the efficiency of the covered wetland treatment system including the potential to combine secondary and tertiary treatment in one stage and the removal of a plant-based stage.
  • Assessment of soil type, planting density, coppicing regime and plant management techniques for optimum system performance using willow trees.
  • The novel combination of summer active and winter active species to achieve year round high evapotranspiration rates. The current industry standard uses only summer active species which limits the annual wastewater treatment.
  • The development and use of willow specific mycorrhizal inoculum for wastewater treatment systems.

Research is being carried out in two main ways. Firstly, a minimal energy-input field site in Cloyne, east Cork is used to trial the wastewater treatment system on a large scale. Secondly, small-scale trials are taking place in UCC to look at various aspects of the large-scale system in greater detail. By combining the results of the large-scale and small-scale trials, a complete and in-depth understanding of the system can be obtained. These results can then be compiled into a set of guidelines for the operation of the system.


Once I have finished my PhD my aim is to remain in research. I find the independent work very enjoyable. A big part of carrying out research is problem solving, and this is a task that I find very stimulating. While carrying out my PhD I have also taken part in a number of initiatives aimed at communicating science/research to the public. I have found the challenges presented by these initiatives very enjoyable.


  • In 2012 I won the Higher Education Authority/Irish Independent “Making an Impact” Award. This competition is aimed at PhD students who can explain the value of their research to a general Irish audience.
  • In 2013 I won Science for All in UCC. This is an internal competition where senior PhD students of science or engineering describe their research to the public.
  • Later that year I also won the Doctoral Showcase in UCC, which is university wide initiative to facilitate PhD students in the communication of their research to a general audience.
  • In 2013 I won FameLab Ireland, before going on to win FameLab International at the Cheltenham Science Festival. FameLab is an international science communication competition.  Scientific concepts or ideas are communicated in three minutes or less and without the use of powerpoint to a non-scientific audience. I also took part in Hall of FameLab in the Natural History Museum in London, and will be taking part in Echoes of FameLab in Prague.
  • In September-October 2013 I had a role on RTE One’s “The Science Squad” which covers science news and stories from around Ireland.
  • I was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust/The Guardian Science Writing Prize 2013 for an article entitled “Blurring The Line Between Life and Death.”
  • I have also lectured in both UCC, Tyndall National Institute and UCD at undergraduate and postgraduate level on science communication, and spoke at TEDx Dublin 2013 on the same subject.
  • I helped to organise the inaugural “Culture Night at BEES” event in September 2013 which proved to be hugely popular with the public.
  • I have authored an article for, and acted as student reviewer for The Boolean which is a student research journal based in UCC.

Later in my research career I would hope to continue communicating my research or scientific topics to the public.



  • “Zero-discharge willow wetland for on-site domestic wastewater treatment in Ireland.” Environ 2013. Link
  • Wastewater treatment using constructed wetlands: the use of willow trees for the sustainable treatment of domestic wastewater. 2012. Environews Issue 25. Page 17. Link 
  • Featured in the Irish Examiner (Feb 2012): Read here
  • Featured in the Irish Independent (April 2012): Read here
  • FameLab International Final 2013 video:

  • FameLab final features in the Irish Times (June 2013): Read here
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