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AAAS Fellow Dawn Wright Maps the Ocean Floor, Turbulent Times in Science

Dawn Wright. Courtesy of Esri.

To understand how oceanographer Dawn Wright reached the helm of one of the premier software companies in the world, one has to look at the lives of several men: Black Dog who had eight fingers, Billy Bones, Captain Alexander Smollett a temperamental and no-nonsense disciplinarian and, Long John Silver, the one-legged pirate. 

“As a child, I fancied myself one of the characters in Treasure Island, fascinated by the idea of a pirate’s life with liberty, equality and fraternity, held high,” she says. “At the beach, I followed imaginary clues and dug for loot in the sands.”

After frolicking on the beach for most of her childhood in Hawaii, by age eight Wright had decided to become an ocean geologist. Her chosen vocation caused her to wade deeper into the ocean, earning her the moniker ‘Deep-Sea Dawn’ after she became the first black woman in 1991 to dive in the vehicle Alvin, a deep submergence facility operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). Peering through a miniature porthole, Wright was able to survey the aftermath of eruptions on the East Pacific Ridge and the Juan de Fuca Ridge, underwater volcanic mountain range off the coasts of Mexico and Washington and Oregon, where she produced pre-dive and post-dive maps.

Today, Wright is a AAAS Fellow and the chief scientist at the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) the world’s sixth-largest privately-owned technology company and a leader in geographic information software (GIS) that is used to make maps that communicate, perform analysis, share information and solve complex problems around the world.  After resigning her tenured position at the Oregon State University in 2011, she took up the job of chief scientist.

“My role as Esri chief scientist is to foster good science within the Esri organization,” she says. Specifically, Wright’s GIS work contributes to the mapping of global terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems, which is vital for conservation. Her data, and that of her teams’, provides insight, for example, into how changes in oxygen within the ocean are affecting the pathways and processes of microbes at all depths.

Her previous sea adventures prepared her well for the role at Esri. During her toughest days, she worked 12-hour shifts. The seafloor maps of cartographer Marie Tharp kept her going.  

“Among my favorite expeditions was to a famous place boldly depicted in another one of her stunning panoramas: the East Indian Ocean,” she says. “It was important to have her map on hand to help me understand the features that we were drilling into.

Early in her career from 1986 to 1989, Wright also spent six months every year at sea on JOIDES Resolution (JR)—a research vessel that drills into the ocean floor to collect and study core samples. Scientists still use the data from the ship to learn about climate change, geology, and Earth’s history. As a sea-going marine technician at the time, Wright managed the data and reports coming out of the various scientific labs on the ship and also helped cut and process the rock cores that had been sampled from different ocean floors, for example, in the Northern Indian Ocean, or the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Kane Fracture Zone in the Atlantic, or the Izu-Bonin Trench-Arc system in the Pacific.

Wright’s travels have helped shape her global perspective and fueled a fierce desire for her to protect her childhood sandbox—the ocean and its beaches. Wright is critical of the recently expunged Executive Order 13547, which had been signed by former President Obama in July 2010, and now replaced by the Trump Administration in 2018 with a new order. Ocean experts like Wright denounced the order, noting that it marked a shift from protection of the ocean to irresponsible resource use and extraction instead.

“The revocation of the said order (Obama’s Executive Order 13547) is wrong and shortsighted,” she says. “Trump recently lifted existing limits on commercial fishing at the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument offshore of New England. The economic growth of that fishing based economy will collapse if there are no regulations in place to ensure that fishing is truly sustainable.”

Like many scientists, Wright has been wrestling not just with the effects of climate change and policy changes she passionately disagrees with, but also on COVID-19, and racial justice issues that flared up again after George Floyd was killed by police.

“In my own experience, the wear-and-tear and exhaustion factors have been the most prescient. Scientists of color have been struggling and living daily with a spectrum stretching from unconscious bias to overt racism,” she says. “This a rough time for all of us, but I think for those of us who are African-American, it is of course doubly hard, because of what is going on but also, to be honest, because the majority culture continues to be looking to us to ‘fix it’ as well, and supply a magic bullet that will all of a sudden end systemic racism.”

As a Black woman in her field, Wright is used to being the only person of color in the room. She became determined to ascend the slippery pole of academia on merit. 

“At Oregon State, I worked not just at 100%, but 110%, 120%, or 150%, in part to debunk the questioning of my right to exist at that level and to debunk the thinking of skeptical colleagues that I was not just an affirmative action hire without the necessary competency,” she says.

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Owen Kibenge