Dawn Wright

Hometown:  Redlands, CA

Current Job Title:  Chief Scientist

Work Location:  Redlands, CA, USA

Job Description:  I work with the CEO of the company to help us better support scientists with our software and our implementation services. I also work as an ambassador for science letting the world know what great science projects we're working on at Esri, while keeping up with trends and research projects that we can use internally here. This involves working closely with the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, as well as several large conservation organizations, government agencies, and universities. I also continue my own research in mapping the ocean floor and building geographic information systems tools for ocean scientists.

Company, Academic Institution, Government Agency or Non-profit affiliation: Environmental Systems Research Institute (aka "Esri")

Highest Degree Level Achieved: and Area of Study: POST DOC Individual Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Physical Geography and Marine Geology.

What do you love most about your career?

It's fascinating! It's fun! I often get to be outside. I get to go on adventures all around the world and meet cool people. Sometimes these adventures are on the ocean or IN the ocean. Modern robots and mapping technologies for the oceans are awesome. There are so many great things that we can do with maps on computers these days and I work with the people are at the cutting edge of this.

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine science or STEM related field?

Watching Jacques Cousteau specials on Sunday nights as a child.

Describe one of the most exciting moments you’ve experienced in your work.

The first time visiting the deep ocean floor in the Alvin submersible which was also used by Robert Ballard to photograph the wreck of the Titanic. On the ocean floor I saw a vast, eerie landscape, as if one has landed on another planet! And everything is so still that it looks as though you could just climb out of the sub and walk around "outside." Of course, at 2000 lbs/sq. in. pressure at those depths that's entirely impossible. While the pilot steers Alvin through the black depths, in and around lava pillars and sulfide spires created by deepsea hotspring hydrothermal activity, we look out the two portholes on the sides of the vehicle and describe into a tape recorder what we see within the perimeter illuminated by the sub's lights. We often instruct the pilot to stop and sample biota or rocks using the robotic arms that extend from Alvin's bow. We know that few others have ever visited the site that we are diving on, and, due to the dynamic nature of the ocean floor, many surprises may await us. For example, during a cruise in 1991 my colleagues and I came closer than any other investigators on record to actually witnessing a deep-sea volcanic eruption. The expedition was led by one of my Ph.D. advisors at the time, Dr. Rachel Haymon of UC-Santa Barbara. The discovery was made at a place later dubbed by Dr. Haymon as the "Tubeworm Barbecue," due to the fact that tubeworm samples brought up from the site smelled of grilled hamburger. At this site on the ocean floor Alvin recovered the scorched, shredded flesh of dead tubeworms and mussels from an animal community that had been partially buried by fresh lava. The fact that the tissue was uneaten by scavengers and freshly dusted with ash that normally rusts and dissolves rapidly in seawater strongly suggested that our visit came within weeks or even days of the eruption. Sure enough, "Tubeworm Barbecue" rock and ash samples analyzed soon after the cruise by a new technique calculated a date for the eruption between March 28 and April 6, 1991. Our first dive to the region occurred on April 1st. The cruise provided new insights into how deep-sea hot spring communities are affected by undersea eruptions and addressed the long-standing question of how these communities survive in isolation. By and large, the organisms that live at these hotsprings can live there and only there, as they depend on the  sulfides at the springs for their food supply. The fluids emitted at the springs may increase to temperatures in excess of 800 deg. F and thus boil the animals alive. On the other hand, if the hydrothermal activity dies completely the animals will starve. It is still a mystery exactly how these organisms manage to migrate for several miles to new undersea hotspring sites in order to survive.

Describe the biggest challenge (or challenges) that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges was having the stamina and the confidence to complete the PhD., but a great PhD committee, some great friends, and my mom kept me going.

Who is your most influential mentor and how did they help you get to where you are today? 

My mom. She has alway been super encouraging and wise. To this day she always encouraged me in everything that I do, and imparts her knowledge of some of the pitfalls and challenges in the world of higher education (aka "academia"), because she has spent her whole career in that world as well.

How do you feel you are making a positive difference in the world?

It is the hope that the work that my colleagues and I do help to educate people not only about the oceans but the whole planet so that we can protect it, preserve, help people in danger from natural disasters and pollution, help people to have fun, and keep people inspired and dreaming about a better world.