Dawn Wright climbs out of Victor Vescovo’s submersible The Limiting Factor, which took both Wright and Vescovo 10,919 meters (35,823 feet) below sea level, into Challenger Deep.
Dawn Wright climbs out of Victor Vescovo’s submersible The Limiting Factor, which took both Wright and Vescovo 10,919 meters (35,823 feet) below sea level, into Challenger Deep. Credit: Dawn Wright
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Since she was 8 years old, Dawn Wright knew she wanted to be an oceanographer. In 2022, she became the first Black person to visit Challenger Deep, the bottom of Earth’s greatest ocean abyss.

Today, Wright is chief scientist at Esri (purveyor of ArcGIS, the mapping tool ubiquitous in the geosciences.) As a child born in Maryland but raised in Hawaii, Wright watched the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, devoured novels, and wondered at Apollo missions taking men to the Moon.

“I thought about being an astronaut for about 5 minutes, but then I immediately pivoted back to wanting to explore the deep sea,” she said. “I thought, ‘If those men could make it to outer space and explore the Moon, why can’t I go in the opposite direction and explore the deep ocean?’” So she did.

After Wright completed an undergraduate degree in geology and a master’s degree in geological oceanography, she began working as a seagoing ocean technician for the Ocean Drilling Program (now the International Ocean Discovery Program) on board the drilling ship JOIDES Resolution. For 3 years, she traveled through remote parts of the world’s oceans to sample the seafloor. Along the way, she saw penguins and icebergs, visited intriguing ports, and even played the role of shipboard Santa.

When Wright left to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara, her reputation as a seafaring scientist preceded her. One professor, Rachel Haymon, had just returned from an expedition to the seafloor with data collected via cutting-edge software at the time: ArcInfo, the precursor to ArcGIS. Haymon recruited Wright to unlock the information within. “That basically changed my life,” Wright said.

“There are so many wonderful paths.”

Wright’s first journey to the seafloor, during her doctoral studies, was to the East Pacific Rise aboard the submersible Alvin. As the first Black woman to dive to the seafloor, Wright incorporated the data into her geographic information system (GIS)-based doctoral research. Using GIS to meld different data sets would be an easy task today, but in the 1990s, that had not been done with deep oceanographic data, she said.

Wright went on to spend 17 years as a professor at Oregon State University, where she ran her own lab, aptly named Davey Jones’ Locker. In 2011, she received a letter from Esri’s president and chief software architect asking whether she would consider coming to the company. She eventually left academia, describing the feeling as exhilarating. “There are so many wonderful paths, and you do not have to be a clone of your professor,” she said.

Now Wright helps Esri connect with scientists ranging from oceanographers to political scientists. “We want to broaden the utility of our software to those communities, but also to participate in those scientific endeavors,” she said.

—Alka Tripathy-Lang (@DrAlkaTrip), Science Writer

This profile is part of a special series in our August 2023 issue on science careers.

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Citation: Tripathy-Lang, A. (2023), Dawn Wright: Diving deep to discover the secrets of the ocean, Eos, 104, https://doi.org/10.1029/2023EO230282. Published on 25 July 2023.
Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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