Research Scholarships

The American Academy of Underwater Sciences awards two $3000 research scholarships to graduate students, one Master's program student and one Ph.D. candidate, engaged in, or planning to begin, a research project in which diving is or will be used as a principal research tool or to study scientific diving.

The AAUS may also award two additional $1500 scholarships to the next two proposals that are ranked the highest. If the additional scholarships are awarded, they may be split between the Master's program and the Ph.D. program, or they may be both awarded within a single program.  *Please note that persons are not eligible to compete for more than one AAUS scholarship per year, excluding the Kevin Flanagan Travel Award.

Proposal deadline is June 30.

Scholarship winners are announced October 1.

Current Scholars

Doctoral-level Awards

Kira Turnham 
Penn State University 
1st Place Doctoral Award

Examining thermal tolerance in Palauan coral reefs

I was raised in a small town in New Mexico, and while I rarely saw the ocean, I never stopped thinking of it and the creatures that lived in its depths. While working toward my BS at New Mexico State University, I worked in Dr. Michele Nishiguchi’s symbiosis lab, and collected squid and their bioluminescent bacterial symbionts to study their regional phylogeography in the Philippines. On this trip I had my first SCUBA dive not in a freshwater spring (and in the Coral Triangle of all places!). Needless to say, I was hooked, and I grew especially interested in coral reefs. Corals contain photosynthetic micro-algal symbionts, and the breakdown of this partnership (coral bleaching) largely due to current rapid increases in temperature, is causing coral reef demise globally.

For my PhD dissertation, I am studying coral symbioses at Penn State University in Dr. Todd LaJeunesse’s laboratory. In extreme environments, many corals associate with thermally tolerant symbiont species which both decreases the likelihood of bleaching and facilitates faster recovery. We, along with collaborators at the University of Delaware and University of Alabama at Birmingham, are studying corals that occur along a steep environmental gradient in Palau where inshore corals are thriving well above their estimated upper thermal thresholds. Inshore corals have coevolved with thermally tolerant symbiont native to the region Durusdinium trenchii. This symbiont does (rarely) occur in offshore corals. Even trace amounts of D. trenchii can eventually displace dominant symbiont populations during periods of severe environmental stress, ultimately resulting in increased colony survivorship. I aim to quantify the prevalence of D. trenchii in offshore corals and also along the gradient to assess correlation with prevailing environmental conditions.

Corals that are thriving in high temperature environments will inform how corals may respond to future scenarios of ocean warming. Competitive displacement of thermally tolerant species represents a key ecological response that protects certain coral communities during thermal stress events. Data produced by these experiments will be used to improve ecological modeling of coral symbiosis partnerships in response to climate change. Furthermore, these data will inform management; as the ocean warms, identifying and protecting areas and species with the highest chance of survival must be a primary focus. The generous funding provided by AAUS will allow me to complete this research project which encompasses a major part of my dissertation.


Bobbie Renfro
Florida State University 
2nd Place Doctoral Award

The Effects of Anthropogenic Nutrient Enrichment on Coral Reef Sponges

Austin, Texas is a wonderful place to grow up if you love the water. I spent summers swimming in crystal-clear freshwater springs, chasing sunfish under logs and treasuring the rare moments when I got to see a soft-shelled turtle. While attending The University of Texas at Austin for my BS in Biology, I got to lifeguard at one of the big springs I’d explored as a child. I enjoyed the technical aspects that lifeguarding added to my love of the water. During my final semester, I saved up money to go on a one-month study abroad to Mexico to learn about tropical marine algae and coral reefs. The course recommended we earn our scuba certification beforehand, in order to explore some of the deeper reefs. My open water scuba course felt like the perfect combination of underwater exploration and technical skill. I could not wait to get to the reefs in Mexico.

The first time I saw a coral reef, the brilliantly colored benthic creatures that composed this thriving underwater city dazzled me and changed my entire career path. After completing my BS degree, I worked in a lab surveying seagrass off the Texas coast. I loved the long days on the water but was eager to get back under the water and back to the reefs that had fascinated me. I attended Auburn University to earn my MS degree. I studied the impacts of diving tourism on herbivorous reef fish foraging and reef structure to guide sustainable management of this growing industry. Following my MS degree, I worked for two years in research, teaching, and outreach positions. I moved to Roatan, Honduras to immerse myself in the world of professional diving and earn my PADI scuba instructor certification. After Honduras, I worked as a marine scientist and SCUBA instructor for a study aboard program called Sea|mester, where I assisted students with developing underwater research projects while sailing throughout the Lesser Antilles. The more reefs I saw, the more I was attracted to the morphologically diverse sponges that play key functional roles on reefs including promoting healthy corals, as well as, adding much of the vibrant color we associate with coral reefs. 

My newfound interest in reef sponges motivated my decision to earn my PhD at Florida State University in the lab of Dr. Janie Wulff, a world-renowned sponge expert. I am in my 3rd year of my PhD using AAUS-approved scientific diving to examine changes in sponge communities across years with changing ocean conditions and among sites with varying levels of human-driven nutrient enrichment. I am seeking not only to understand the effects of chronic nutrient enrichment on sponge populations, but also to determine the underlying mechanisms driving these patterns. The knowledge gained from my dissertation will improve sustainable reef management that promotes biodiversity for the sake of conservation and for divers like all of us to enjoy. I am honored to have earned the support of the prestigious AAUS Foundation Scholarship to support my research.



Master-level Awards

William Nassif 

East Carolina University 
1st Place Masters Award

Documenting World War II-era submerged archaeological sites in the lagoon at Kwajalein Atoll (Republic of the Marshall Islands)

Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, I obtained my BA in History from Appalachian State University in 2016. Growing up in North Carolina, I developed a deep sense of appreciation for my home’s maritime heritage. I was fortunate enough to intern at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort in 2015, which further exposed me to the fields of maritime history and maritime archaeology. After working as a high school educator for two years in Raleigh, I applied to graduate school with the hopes of using my love of diving and history to protect our shared cultural heritage.

I am currently a third-year master’s student in the Program of Maritime Studies at East Carolina University. My thesis research has focused on recreating the nineteenth century port economy of Washington, NC, blending historical research and archaeological surveys of remnant waterfront structures to understand the economic factors which encouraged port development. Along with my own research, I have partaken in field surveys throughout the eastern part of North Carolina, as well as in the Marshall Islands. 

This project is funded by an American Battlefield Protection Program grant, and now the prestigious AAUS Research Award. A team of archaeologists from East Carolina University and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are conducting a baseline survey of the submerged cultural resources surrounding Roi-Namur in the Marshall Islands. Working alongside the Republic of Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Office, data obtained through the survey will assist this understaffed agency with collation of data and management of submerged cultural resources.

I truly appreciate the support from the AAUS foundation and continued enthusiasm from members of the maritime archaeology and scientific diving community.



Nika Blank 

Florida State University 
2nd Place Masters Award

Investigating Latitudinal Changes in Hardbottom Communities of the West Florida Shelf

Originally from New Jersey, I moved to Florida in 2016 to study environmental science and compete as a scholarship athlete on the Florida State University swim team. Throughout my undergraduate career, I represented FSU at national competitions including the 2016 US Olympic Trials. I also volunteered and interned with the Florida State Parks Service and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to gain first-hand experience in environmental management. My lifelong love of swimming, pushed me to get my AAUS science diving certification so that I could spend more time underwater, discovering the communities and processes that shape life in the oceans. I received my BS in Environmental Science from Florida State University in 2019 and knew that I wanted to continue using my scientific diving skills to study coastal seafloor communities. 

Currently, I am a second-year master's student in Dr. Sandra Brooke’s lab at Florida State University. My  research aims to identify shifts in the community structure of hardbottom coral ecosystems along the west Florida shelf. The coral communities in the northern Gulf of Mexico are often overlooked for their more diverse, tropical counterparts in the Florida Keys and Caribbean. However, these marginal ecosystems are of critical importance for many fish and invertebrate species and vary in structure across the length of the shelf. The reasons for these shifts in community structure have not yet been fully resolved, but my research aims to close the gap in our understanding of these hardbottom communities. By gathering data on species presence, diversity, and demographics, we can develop a clearer image of the hardbottom communities along the shelf. Understanding the community structure of these coral ecosystems, will allow us to manage them more efficiently and ensure the health of these corals and all the species that rely on them. I am grateful for the support from the AAUS foundation in further our understanding of marginal coral ecosystems and the west Florida shelf.