Joseph Pawlik

October 19, 2021

As a young child, Joseph Pawlik fell in love with marine biology watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and tending to his small aquariums in his Minnesota basement on frosty winter days. It wasn’t until he was 11 years old that he finally saw the ocean in person. 

Since then, the UNCW Frank Hawkins Kenan Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology has turned his passion into a lifelong career as an acclaimed marine biologist, teaching and researching at UNCW and exploring the world’s oceans from the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt to the South Pacific Ocean islands of Fiji to the Caribbean Sea. Additionally, he is still tending aquariums, only now his dual 90-gallon reef aquariums are housed in UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. 

Renowned in his field, Pawlik has authored nearly 170 published articles as well as created numerous web resources and educational videos about his research. Fellow researcher, Patrick Krug, even named a new species of mollusk after him, Elysia pawliki. Pawlik’s latest work, spanning more than two decades, focuses on Caribbean coral reef sponges. 

“The Caribbean reef ecosystem is changing rapidly and being taken over by other animals,” explained Pawlik. “I'm deeply interested in this transition and what the new ecosystem will be like and the role sponges, algae, sea whips and other sea life will have as the ecosystem transitions.” 

Pawlik, who has mentored 40 graduate students at UNCW and taught hundreds of undergraduates, is also known for his generosity to UNCW. In 2018, he pledged an estate gift during Like No Other: The Campaign for UNCW that will create the Joseph R. Pawlik Distinguished Professorship in Marine Biology. His gift aligns with UNCW's key priority of increasing support for faculty. 

"It’s a giving back thing,” said Pawlik, reflecting on his 30-year career at UNCW. “I’ve had such a great ride. I work in an amazing department that is extremely focused and collegial, and I’ve had a really wonderful time.” 

With no plans to retire anytime soon, Pawlik said coming to UNCW was the best career decision he could ever have made. 

“What excites me most about my job is that it is always interesting and constantly changing. The dynamic mix of teaching and research makes it the best job you could ever hope to have,” said Pawlik. 

Currently, Pawlik is collaborating with colleagues in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to gain funding from the National Science Foundation to pursue research on the impacts of coral reef sponges on seawater chemistry. 

--Krissy Vick