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

 Jordan Sims
George Mason University 
1st Place Doctoral Award

Comparing genotypic diversity of two coral restoration programs to wild populations in Roatán, Hondurasy 

I am a 3rd year Ph.D. student in Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia where I work in Dr. Jennifer Salerno’s microbial ecology lab, studying the microbial drivers of coral reproduction and disease in Roatán, Honduras. I completed my undergraduate degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where I worked in Dr. Adrienne Correa’s lab. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to be involved with many different projects, with topics including the impacts of coastal flooding on offshore reef microbiomes, viral and microalgal dynamics in corals affected by heat stress, and transgenerational influences of nitrate enrichment on coral microbiomes. I began diving during this time received my AAUS certification as a graduate student in Spring 2022.

These experiences helped to shape my research interests, which broadly include the microbial underpinnings of coral reef resilience. Since starting my graduate program, I have formed partnerships with the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS) and Roatán Marine Park (RMP). We have several ongoing collaborative projects using paired molecular tools and microscopy to study the effects of amoxicillin treatment on the microbiome of stony coral tissue loss disease-affected corals and the role of bacterial biofilms in inducing coral settlement. Both RIMS and RMP also operate coral restoration programs for the ecologically important Caribbean elkhorn and staghorn corals, and I am helping them to genotype the corals in their nurseries.

The AAUS Doctoral Scholarship will support the genotyping of wild elkhorn and staghorn coral populations around the island of Roatán. This will allow my collaborators and me to better understand the genetic diversity and population structure of the remaining elkhorn and staghorn populations in Roatán and how well the genetic diversity of the nurseries reflects that of the wild populations. This knowledge will help RIMS and RMP to more strategically outplant nursery corals and maximize genetic diversity and resilience of restored areas. I am very grateful to the AAUS foundation for their support of this project.



Yifan Li

Pennsylvania State University  
2nd Place Doctoral Award

Assessing microbiome influences on coral stress tolerance on a highly polluted, turbid Caribbean reef

I am a first year PhD student in Dr. Mónica Medina’s lab within the Biology Department at the Pennsylvania State University. Before entering graduate school, I was a Research Assistant in the environmental microbiology lab of Dr. Romy Chakraborty at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). At LBNL, my research focused on the enrichment, isolation and characterization of soil- and plant-associated bacteria. It was here that I fell in love with the world of microbes and symbiosis. After 1.5 years at LBNL, I moved to the National University of Singapore where I examined how plant ecophysiology is affected by soil/plant microbes and biogeochemistry. Throughout the years, I became fascinated by coral symbiosis and the roles that microorganisms play to support the intricate relationships within a coral holobiont.

In the Medina lab, I am examining the roles that bacterial communities play in cnidarian health and stress tolerance. In particular, I am interested in looking at how inter-species and inter-kingdom metabolic networks, nutrient cycling, and other forms of signaling shape holobiont behavior under sub-optimal environmental conditions. For part of my PhD work, I will be comparing Symbiodiniaceae microbiomes across its phylogeny in both lab-cultured and field-collected samples, as well as correlating Symbiodiniaceae functional traits with their microbiome profiles. I will also be exploring the presence of phylosymbiosis between Symbiodiniaceae lineages and their microbiomes to look for eco-evolutionary relationships. These studies are important for developing a comparative understanding of variations in Symbiodiniaceae ecophysiology, which we know can greatly influence coral fitness especially during detrimental events such as coral bleaching. The study of phylosymbiosis also has broad-reaching implications across various disciplines in ecology, evolution and host-microbiome research.

Coastal communities in low- and middle-income nations, such as our field sites in Colombia, are disproportionately impacted by decaying coral reef health. Thus, I also hope to use this opportunity to collaborate with local communities in Colombia to tell their stories on a global stage, highlighting the close connections between environmental and socioeconomic issues. Being an international student, I greatly appreciate the AAUS foundation’s continued recognition and support of graduate student research regardless of nationality. The AAUS Doctoral Scholarship will support my research investigating the microbiomes of cnidarians and endosymbionts by providing funds for equipment rentals and research supplies needed for fieldwork.



Master-level Awards

Cheyne Springbett

Walla Walla University;
1st Place Masters Award

Digging in: an investigation of burrowing behavior in Muusoctopus leioderma

My name’s Cheyne, and I’m starting my second year as a master’s student in the Onthank Lab at Walla Walla University. I started my career in biology as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. At that point, I was focused on terrestrial ecology and animal behavior. During that time, I got my first practical research experience. I spent several months in Costa Rica’s Monteverde could forest looking at territoriality of nightingale thrushes. I also worked in the Davies Lab, helping to study the impact of fragmentation in an Australian ecological field site. I graduated in 2018, and immediately began working as an Ecological Technician in Alaska for the NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network. I transitioned into marine biology when I took a job as a fisheries observer for NOAA, helping to help keep track of the commercial fishing effort in Alaska’s Bering Sea.

I’ve always been drawn to the ocean and sea life, and so it was inevitable I’d end up in marine biology. I currently work with the coolest animal in the ocean, octopuses! I work with a small benthic species called Muusoctopus leioderma, a deep-water octopus that has been discovered recently in the much more accessible shallow waters of Burrows Bay, WA. I’m interested in learning more about this species’ unique burrowing behavior, where the octopus will form its own shelters by digging deep below the sediment on the ocean floor. Burrowing is highly impactful on an ecosystem, and octopuses, as generalist predators, can exert strong levels of influence as invaders. The presence of a species normally only accessible via trawl nets in an area where they can be easily studied and collected via SCUBA offers exciting opportunities for learning more about the lives and behavior of deep-water octopods.

The AAUS’s contribution to my research is a welcome privilege and will be instrumental in helping me reach my goals for my master’s program. The scholarship funds will be used to help cover the expenses of air, gas, and various SCUBA and data collection equipment for the nearly 50 dives needed this summer to complete my research.


Keenan Guillas  

San Jose State University 
2nd Place Masters Award

The behaviour and energetics of demosponges in response to suspended sediments 

I am a second-year master’s student in Dr. Amanda Kahn’s Invertebrate Ecology Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML), a California State University consortium campus on Monterey Bay administered by San José State University. I earned my bachelor’s from the University of Alberta in 2018, where I did undergraduate research on polar bear spatial ecology, sponge settlement patterns, and epifaunal invertebrate communities on glass sponge reefs. After graduating, I worked as a research technician describing the spatial ecology, nutrient flux, and benthic-pelagic coupling processes of the Hecate Strait glass sponge reefs (British Columbia, Canada). At MLML I research sponge behaviour and physiology, and for my thesis I will investigate the nature of rhythmic contraction behaviours in the temperate demosponges Tethya californiana and Hymeniacidon perlevis. I will employ in situ and in-lab investigations in my work: using SCUBA to deploy subtidal instrument moorings and to collect specimens, and using time-lapse imagery, recordings of respiration and pumping rate, and microscopy in the lab to elucidate the processes behind behaviours observed in situ. This work will shed light on coordination and behaviours in sponges, which are an early-diverging metazoan phylum and can teach us much about how sensation, coordination, and nervous systems evolved in higher animals.

I am incredibly excited to receive support from the AAUS Foundation to carry out my thesis work. The financial support from the AAUS Master’s Research Scholarship will help fund the purchase and maintenance of my SCUBA equipment and will also contribute to building the subtidal instrument mooring I am designing to record long-term sponge behaviours in the subtidal.