Hawk's Eye View: Joseph Pawlik


What started with a love of watching "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" turned into a career for Joseph Pawlik, the UNCW Frank Hawkins Kenan Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology.

Distinguished Professor Joseph Pawlik in classroom with aquarium

The acclaimed marine biologist and Minneapolis native has been teaching and doing research at UNCW for more than 30 years. He has conducted extensive research on sponges and Caribbean coral reefs. The 90-gallon reef aquariums in UNCW’s Center for Marine Science allow him to tend his lifelong passion when he’s not making research visits to the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt, the South Pacific Ocean islands of Fiji and the Caribbean Sea.

In this Hawk's Eye View, Pawlik recently shared his thoughts on teaching, paying it forward by endowing the Joseph R. Pawlik Distinguished Professorship in Marine Biology, research trips and more.

What made you get into teaching?

My brothers and sisters used to kid me about always wanting to play ‘quiz game’ whenever we were in the car. I loved being taught. I like the idea of learning.  

I really enjoyed my undergraduate education. I also found an interesting relationship between theater and education. The best way to teach people is to be theatrical about it. That's how people really learn. 

I found this was something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing – not only gaining information but conveying it to people. I didn't want to just do research. I wanted to teach as well.

What brought you to UNCW?

Funny story – I really didn’t intend to get a job here. I had never heard of the place. Like most academics, I applied for every job that was open. I went into the interview thinking it was a warm-up act for another interview I had a few weeks later. I thought I wanted to go to the other university because it was a "Research I" school, a very well-known institution.

I came to UNCW and fell in love with the place – just completely head over heels. It was no question by the end of the interview.

I was getting on the plane to leave UNCW and knew I would be an idiot to not take the job. I got the offer the next day and told the department chair, ‘Please hold it for me. I think I'm going to say yes, but I have to go to this other interview first.’ 

I went to the other university and hated it. I told them midway through the interview I was going to Wilmington. I called Wilmington during the interview to say yes.

So that's what brought me to UNCW. It's a beautiful place that has exactly the right mix of teaching and research.

What is your favorite part about the Wilmington area?

I live downtown. Downtown is the best part of Wilmington by far. The Wilmington area is fantastic in all respects. We have everything going for us here. Everyone wants to live here.

What people don't know is that the best part about downtown is not how beautiful it is and the physical location, but the people who live there. We have a very engaged community downtown that you will not find anywhere else. The Residents of Old Wilmington neighborhood association is a lively and welcoming group. That's definitely my favorite part.

That's what brought me to UNCW. It's a beautiful place that is exactly the right mix of teaching and research.

— Joseph Pawlik

You are a distinguished professor in marine biology and have now endowed a professorship of your own. What inspired that?

I have so enjoyed my time in the department and the honor of being a distinguished professor. I thought, ‘Wow, there should be two of us.’

Why shouldn't other people enjoy this honor as well? It has been a dream come true. I have been able to do everything I've wanted to do. I found a group of colleagues who are extremely supportive.

The faculty here, and the new people coming into our department, know we’re in a special place. They want to work at a place like ours, where you are buying into a team. We actively try to make things better for the students within our department. We work together as a team.

I think a distinguished professorship is a great way to leave a legacy. I'm actually quite surprised more people don't do it.

Sponge research has been a focus of yours. How did that start?

I have always been interested in marine biology, specifically invertebrate zoology. As an undergraduate sophomore I went to the Bermuda Biological Station, which is now the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. There, I took invertebrate zoology from Dr. John Pearse. The next year, I was a teaching assistant for him because he was impressed with my interest. I was teaching graduate students as an undergraduate sophomore.

My first project was on sponges and things that lived on sponges. I thought sponges were pretty cool, and that set me on my path.  

Generally, I pick phenomena rather than organisms to work on. For whatever reason, the phenomena just keep directing me back to sponges.  

Certainly, in the 30 years I've been here, sponges have been extremely useful as an organism for phenomenological studies.

How did fellow researcher Patrick Krug end up naming an organism after you?

Patrick is a very good friend and colleague of mine and a hilarious person. We go way back. He came into my graduate program 10 years behind me. He had the same major professor I did. He had very similar experiences as I did. It was almost like he was a twin brother, but separated in time.

When I became a professor and got funding to have research trips in the Bahamas and Mexico, I would invite him to study molluscs. That’s his specialty. He's been very, very successful in studying one group of molluscs – every aspect of their taxonomy, ecology and reproductive biology.

I think, in gratitude for my inviting him on all of those trips, he named one of those molluscs (Elysia pawliki) after me.

What is the most enjoyable part of your research trips?

I have been so lucky to travel as much as I have during the 30 years I've been actively engaged in research.

By far, the most fun is spending time with graduate students. I'm single and have no children, but spending time in the field with graduate students is like having children – but without many of the negative consequences. It's terrific. The coolest thing about the travel and doing the research is the interaction with this group of young, excited and fun students.

Before 2004, we only had a master's program, so my students would only be with me for three years at most, two years usually. Then we added a Ph.D. program, so the best students would be around for maybe five or six years. There's constant turnover of students. It keeps me young to have these groups of students coming through all the time.

What’s one thing you wish all incoming freshmen knew upon arriving at UNCW?

Undergraduate students tend to stick to their dorms, their friends and their classes. They don't explore as much as they could. Students often do not realize that they have the opportunity to do research at places like this. They can contact faculty as quickly as they land here to try to get involved in research projects and do research.

In the four years as undergraduates, students could do an entire research project if they want to do research. They could do it here. There are labs here that are always interested in smart and motivated undergraduates who want to be volunteers and work on anything from oyster restoration, to shellfish aquaculture, to marsh ecology. Within 45 minutes you can be scuba diving shipwrecks, going to Fort Fisher to work on intertidal rocks or working on salt marshes right here behind the building.

The sooner they get involved in a research program, the more likely it is that they will have opportunities to get into the honors program, get actual research done and maybe publish a paper before they graduate. That's what will get them into graduate school, and potentially on an academic track.