Two graduate students at Florida universities have been named recipients of scholarships from the Aylesworth Foundation for the Advancement of Marine Science.
Since 1986, the Aylesworth scholarship has supported students pursuing college degrees in disciplines that have direct application to marine science. Recipients continue to receive funding from the award each year as long as they make satisfactory progress toward degree completion.
The scholarship is a joint effort of the Aylesworth Foundation, the Southeastern Fisheries Association and Florida Sea Grant. Scholarships worth $581,974 have been awarded to 102 students in 14 Florida universities over the past 30 years.
The winners will be recognized at the annual Southeastern Fisheries Association awards banquet in June. More information about each recipient follows.
Cecily Burton is pursuing her master’s degree in environmental science at Florida Gulf Coast University. She also works with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission studying populations of adult and juvenile fish in Charlotte Harbor. For her master’s thesis, she is locating endangered smalltooth sawfish that have been tagged with acoustic transmitters to see which habitats they are using most.
“I am looking at any day-to-night movement to see if they are moving away from the shoreline at night and if they are using different areas of the Peace River at night,” Burton said.
She said her research could help resource managers decide whether to broaden “hotspot” areas where juvenile smalltooth sawfish are commonly found each year to better protect the species’ habitat.
Burton said she first knew she wanted to pursue a career in marine science during her first undergraduate fisheries management course after reading a book titled “Oceana” by Ted Danson.
“I didn’t realize the problems marine fisheries were facing or the fact that overfishing was a serious problem,” Burton said. “The mixture of the book and class really motivated me to want to be a marine biologist and help be a part of marine fisheries research.”
Burton earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology with a concentration in marine biology, ecology and organismal biology from Michigan State University. Her career goal is to work in the conservation and management of endangered species.
Gregg Poulakis, Burton’s supervisor at FWC, said her research will help provide data for the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Plan.
“In the 18 years that I’ve worked in the lab, Cecily is only the second employee to apply our research toward a graduate degree,” Poulakis said. “Her research plays an important role in advancing our understanding of how endangered smalltooth sawfish are using their habitats in the Peace River.”
Kelli O’Donnell is a master’s student studying fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Florida. Prior to starting her graduate degree, she worked for FWC and as a contract fisheries biologist for National Marine Fisheries Service. Her interest in marine research started at the age of 12 when she accompanied her dad in the U.S. Coast Guard as his ship released a rehabilitated pilot whale.
“Seeing the caretakers work with this magnificent creature of the sea, learning how they nursed it back to health so that it could be released and watching the whale swim away made me realize a career in marine science was where I wanted to go,” O’Donnell said.
Her master’s research is quantifying the growth of staghorn coral using different growing methods in the nursery to see which restoration practices will be the most successful. She is conducting the research in partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory.
“Coral restoration is still a fairly new science, about 10 years old, and new methods are continuously being identified,” O’Donnell said. “I plan on publishing my thesis results in a peer reviewed journal to share with other coral managers and to add to the best practices that are currently out there. Hopefully I can continue this research out of the nursery after the coral is planted on the reef to continue observing these same parameters and see how being on the reef may affect them.”
O’Donnell received her bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Florida Institute of Technology. Once she graduates, she hopes to obtain a fulltime position with FWC or the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Erich Bartels, O’Donnell’s adviser and staff scientist at Mote Marine Lab, says O’Donnell’s research has the potential to considerably improve the organization’s coral restoration efforts.
“This improved knowledge in restoration will contribute to future conservation needs and rejuvenation of the Florida Keys reef tract,” Bartels said. “I see her going far in the marine conservation and restoration field.”