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Marine Aquarium Societies awards scholarship to graduate student

The Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (MASNA) is awarding one of its annual scholarships to an Interdisciplinary Ecology graduate student.

man standing on beach

Aaron Pilnick, doctoral student in the UF/IFAS School of Natural Resources and Environment. (photo provided)

The 2020 – 2021 MASNA Graduate Student Scholarship recipient is Aaron Pilnick, a doctoral student in the UF/IFAS School of Natural Resources and Environment. His advisor is Dr. Joshua Patterson, assistant professor of restoration aquaculture in the UF School of Forest Resources & Conservation.

Aaron has a long history of reef-keeping that spans the better portion of two decades. He has worked in the retail and service industry and participated as an active hobbyist at past MASNA conferences (MACNA).

“MASNA as an organization is so important for bringing aquarium hobbyists, industry partners, and scientists together to cultivate a community of diverse stakeholders,” Aaron said. “Through their efforts to educate, organize, and support research and conservation, MASNA is really a leader when it comes to promoting responsible practices and sustainable growth in the industry and the hobby that supports it.”

“Without a doubt, MASNA positively influenced my early interest in the aquarium hobby and ultimately helped to facilitate a career in marine science and conservation,” he added.

Academics & Research

Aaron received a double B.S. in Biology and Environmental Studies from Tufts University in 2013. After graduation, he worked at the National Aquarium, managing the aquarium’s live coral exhibits.

man kneeling by coolers holding sea urchins

Aaron Pilnick with sea urchins. (photo provided)

In 2018, Aaron entered the Interdisciplinary Ecology program and began working in partnership with the Florida Aquarium in Apollo Beach, Fla. There, he designed a novel culture system for the long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum. These urchins play a critical role in consuming macroalgae on Caribbean reefs. That in turn improves the habitat for reef-building corals to settle and grow. Sadly, in the early 1980s, Diadema succumbed to a disease that reduced populations by up to 99%. These urchins have not recovered, which is contributing to Caribbean reef decline.

“My research aims to refine culture methods for this species,” Aaron explained. “The goal is to ultimately improve the viability of producing hatchery-reared urchins to restore much-needed herbivory to coral reefs.”

Aaron has recently facilitated major breakthroughs in the ability to aquaculture this species.

About MASNA

MASNA scholarships are awarded based on the following criteria:

  • Enrollment in a marine science undergraduate or graduate degree program
  • A G.P.A. of 2.5/4.0 or greater
  • Proven contributions and demonstrated commitment to the marine aquarium hobby

In addition to the $4,000 scholarship, Aaron receives an all-expense-paid trip to MACNA 2021 in Atlanta.