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

 Aurora Giorgi
The University of Alabama 
1st Place Doctoral Award

Settlement preferences of Porites astreoides larvae in response to crustose coralline algae and their surface bacterial community 

I am Aurora Giorgi, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa, USA) and a member of the Olson lab within the Department of Biological Science. I am extremely honored to accept the Doctoral Research Scholarship from the AAUS foundation and sincerely appreciate the Academy’s continued commitment towards supporting graduate student research. The AAUS Scholarship will provide the necessary resources for me to survey shallow reefs in the Florida Keys to elucidate the diversity and prevalence of crustose coralline algae (CCA) and implement a series of settlement experiments using larvae of the hard coral species Porites astreoides to examine the roles of CCA and their associated microorganisms in coral settlement. My research is also partially funded by the UA Department of Biological Sciences and Graduate School.

I am originally from Pesaro, a coastal town located on the eastern side of Italy facing the Adriatic Sea. The ocean has always been an important part of my life and I grew up playing in the waves, rolling in the sand, and breathing in the brackish air. When I became SCUBA diving certified in 2012 and did my first my open ocean dive, I was fascinated by the myriad marine organisms, and I wanted to share the wonders of the underwater world with as many people as possible. To aid me in this endeavor, four years later, in the Dominican Republic I became a SCUBA diving instructor and I received my AAUS scuba diving certification in 2018 at the University of Alabama. 

Eager to spend time underwater and wanting to make a lifelong commitment to the study of marine life, I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Bologna (Italy) before completing a Master’s degree in Marine Biology. My research focused on coral diseases, which have largely been attributed to human-induced environmental changes and impacts and reinforced the importance of preserving essential yet fragile coral reef ecosystems. My studies helped to expand my knowledge of coral reef organisms and allowed me to develop underwater scientific research skills and critical thinking abilities. 

After graduating, I went to the MaRHE Center, a marine research facility in the Maldives affiliated with the University of Milano-Bicocca to complete a Master of Philosophy in Marine Sciences. During this two-year period, I lived on the islands of this archipelago and investigated coral diseases and coral reef biodiversity while trying to make scientific research more accessible to the public. As part of my efforts, I developed and conducted several outreach activities with tourists from all over the world as well as the local residents. Undeniably, an image is worth a thousand words; thus, underwater photography became an ideal opportunity for me to better reach a broad and diverse audience.
My ongoing passion for the coral ecosystem inspired me to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Alabama, where I have invested my energy into the study of the colorful crusts covering the majority of reef surfaces. These crustose coralline algae (CCA) have the potential to promote the recovery of coral communities but have been often overlooked because of the difficulties associated with taxonomic identification. Some species appear to be a preferred settlement substrate for numerous marine invertebrates, including scleractinian corals. A wide array of microorganisms lives on the algal surface, and it remains largely unknown whether this invertebrate larval settlement is mediated by compounds produced by the CCA or by the surface microbial community.

To address this question, I will perform a series of field surveys on the reefs of the Florida Keys and then implement settlement experiments using three commonly encountered species of CCA. These experiments will examine the role of their microbial communities in larval settlement by employing a mixture of antibiotics to remove this component. Lastly, metabolites extracted from cultured CCA-associated bacteria will be used in settlement experiments to test their ability to influence coral larval settlement. These results will provide information on what is required to allow Porites astreoides larvae to successfully settle and generate a baseline for future studies on the recruitment preferences of other stony corals species. This study will also yield insights into the fundamental ecosystem functions that some undervalued groups of organisms, such as CCA, perform, paving the way for future management policies focusing on their conservation. 


Mohammad Sedarat

Scripps Institute of Oceanography  
2nd Place Doctoral Award

Development of a Kelp Recovery Program at SIO: Design, Establishment and Implementation of Research 

Mohammad is a second-year Ph.D. student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, and a member of Professor Jennifer Smith’s Lab. Before beginning graduate school at Scripps, Mohammad earned a Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology at UC San Diego and conducted fisheries research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mohammad’s current research explores the effects of long-term and interannual climate change on giant kelp across spatial scales.  This research is part of the development of a giant kelp recovery program capable of informing global efforts in this field. The knowledge gained from this examination is also crucial for dealing with endangered species, especially for white abalone population restoration, which is the focus of his work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As a marine ecologist, Mohammad places strong emphasis on field technique and observation. Mohammad regularly participates in days-long to month-long seagoing research that often spans topics across physical and biological oceanography. This research experience reinforces Mohammad’s ecological sense of place, especially in terms of marine conservation in a rapidly changing environment. Since his AAUS certification at Scripps as an undergraduate in 2014, Mohammad has logged over 550 scientific dives along coastal California, the Adriatic Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Theses dives involve a range of underwater work, primarily within local kelp forests and seagrass beds, including ecological surveys, experiments, and instrument deployments. Beyond his field work along California and the Channel Islands, Mohammad periodically collaborates on projects with relatively remote study sites. In 2018, Mohammad worked with Carnegie Museum of Natural History to conduct the first systematic underwater fossil survey of an Early Cretaceous dinosaur locality in Croatia. Mohammad joined Scripps researchers for diving work in Seychelles in 2018 and 2019, during which the team deployed and serviced instrumentation to identify seasonal patterns in currents and water properties in order to predict local ocean conditions that impact fisheries, navigation, and ocean safety. As a member of the Scripps Diving Control Board, Mohammad is passionate about the university’s field program and serves as a resource for student divers and their field research. 



Master-level Awards

Melissa Gutterman

California State University, Northridge 
1st Place Masters Award

Management-based differences in the dietary niches of California reef fishes

I am a second-year Master’s student at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), and a member of Dr. Mark Steele’s Fish Ecology Lab. I am honored to accept this AAUS Master’s scholarship and appreciate AAUS’s continued support of graduate student research. 

I grew up right outside of Los Angeles, no more than 30 minutes away from the ocean, and my family was always at the beach. I constantly found myself around marine life, and soon the science of the ocean became my driving force. From science fair projects about warming waters, to a job shadow at the Aquarium of the Pacific, I was all in and ready to learn more. I continued to foster my love of science and the ocean throughout high school and into my undergrad at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). During my time there, I conducted my own research in the Monterey Bay area and studied abroad at the University of Queensland, Australia. I started SCUBA diving in 2015 and a year later I earned my AAUS Scientific Diving certification. As an undergraduate researcher in UCSC’s Raimondi/Carr Lab, my main focus was on the “urchin barren” phenomenon that was becoming a problem in the Monterey Bay area. Large populations of purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) were demolishing kelp forests, and there was not much known about why or how these populations were exploding like they were. This led my fellow researcher and I to create a program to help monitor the recruitment of these urchins into the area. 

Through my experiences at UCSC, I was draw to the field of marine ecology, and specifically marine food webs and diet. And it is that interest that led me to my current program at CSUN. My thesis looks to see if there are dietary differences between California reef fishes inside verses outside of marine protected areas (MPAs), and how different marine management strategies influence fish foraging behavior. Overfishing, and the specific targeting of larger “prized” fishes, has shifted the average body size of fish populations towards smaller and smaller individuals. And this size targeting has resulted in the “trophic downgrading” of these communities; the removal of large, top predators removes the means by which populations of large prey can be controlled. In response, the implementation of MPAs has been shown to improve both the population numbers and the average body sizes of these species, however, little is known about how these changes influence diet. To access these impacts, I am looking at two major southern California fish species, Black Perch (Embiotoca jacksoni) and California Sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher),and comparing their diets inside MPAs verses outside of MPAs. I will be leading dive teams to monitor these areas and to collect fish for analysis. By combining short-term and long-term diet indicators, I hope to get a clearer picture of how species in these areas are interacting, how human activity has influenced these interactions, and how best to maintain these populations into the future.


Ashley Carriero  

Florida Atlantic University 
2nd Place Masters Award

Stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) 

I am a first-year marine science and oceanography master’s student at Florida Atlantic University- Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and work in Dr. Joshua Voss’ Coral Reef Health and Molecular Ecology lab. I am very fortunate to have been awarded the runner-up for the AAUS Masters Scholarship. The AAUS scholarship will provide me with necessary funds, which in combination with funds awarded from the PADI scholarship and the Florida Atlantic University graduate school, will contribute greatly to my thesis research investigating the effects of nutrient enrichment on the devastating stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD). The AAUS scholarship specifically, will be funding the nutrient analysis of water samples taken from above our experimental colonies. Confirming that the experiment is locally inducing elevated nutrient levels, which will be critical to determining what role nutrients may play in exacerbating the effects of SCTLD infection.  

There was never any doubt that I wanted to pursue a career in the underwater world. I was introduced to the marine environment at a young age through family fishing trips where I would play the role of ‘marine biologist’ and try to identify the different fish caught. To advance my academic understanding of marine science, I enrolled at Florida State University straight after high school, where I majored in Biology and joined the Marine Biology certificate program. Through the certificate program, I received my AAUS diving certification to gain field experience to enable me to conduct sound underwater research in the future. I directly applied the skills I learned through the AAUS course working under the supervision of PhD candidate at the time, Dr. Robert Ellis, during an internship assisting on his research of habitat manipulation of red grouper, Epinephelus morio. Working with Dr. Ellis gave me knowledge and experience in data collection, fieldwork, and data analysis needed to complete my research on the assessment of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Florida Keys. I chose this project because I wanted to directly link my research to marine conservation efforts. In 2016, I was hired as a Science Officer at a volunteer-based non-governmental organization, Marine Conservation Philippines (MCP). MCP focuses its efforts on assessing the effectiveness of MPAs along the Negros Oriental coastline. I used my skills learned as an AAUS diver to teach volunteers from all over the world how to monitor these coral reefs. While at MCP, I was offered the opportunity to investigate the feasibility of conducting upper mesophotic reef assessments using technical diving in the depth range of 30-50 m. My colleague and I utilized technical diving to investigate if using cameras to collect data at mesophotic depths with divers would generate more accurate data than recoding the data in situ. I presented our results at the Asia Coral Reef Symposium in Cebu in 2018, and this data will be used by MCP to continue monitoring these upper mesophotic reefs to help in the understanding of how anthropogenic pressures are affecting these communities.

After leaving the Philippines, I began working at Florida Atlantic University-Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Dr. Joshua Voss’ Coral Reef Health and Ecology lab as a lab technician and shortly after began to pursue my master’s degree. I was drawn to Dr. Voss’ lab because of my interest in continuing to work on mesophotic reefs and also to learn more about coral diseases and the effects of anthropogenic impacts on them. My interests led me to study the effects of nutrient enrichment on SCTLD. In 2014, SCTLD was first observed and characterized off the coast of Miami-Dade County. SCTLD remains highly prevalent across southeast Florida, Biscayne National Park, and the Florida Keys and is estimated to have resulted in the mortality of millions of colonies across the Florida Reef Tract.  Using a blocked treatment design, my thesis experiment will directly test the effects of modest nutrient amendments on 1) SCTLD progression, 2) coral tissue loss, 3) coral microbiomes, and 4) changes in near coral nutrient concentrations. During this experiment, I will collect water samples, create 3D models of experimental colonies, and collect small coral fragments to track changes in microbial communities. The data collected from this study will improve our understanding of the potential role of nutrient pollution on SCTLD dynamics in southeast Florida and therefore determine optimized water quality management efforts that may prevent further SCTLD outbreaks and losses of coral reef resources. SCTLD has been one of the most devastating Caribbean coral diseases ever studied, data generated from this study may give us critical knowledge to allow researchers and conservation managers to be successful in halting the spread and coral mortality.


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