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Dawn Wright, PH.D.

Chief Scientist, 

Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)


Geographer and Oceanographer,

Oregon State University ​



She mapped her route from Maryland to Hawaii -- then learned to map the deep ocean, diving in submarines and traveling the seven seas.

My Mother Dawn Wright
00:00 / 05:24
School of the SeaDawn Wright
00:00 / 02:48

culture shock


try         this!

unclear path

nobody "like me"

trying new things

culture shock:  

In her freshman year of high school, things were going well for Dawn. But when her grandmother became ill, her mother decided they needed to move to Baltimore to help out. 

Dawn was a Hawaiian girl, and moving to the Baltimore metropolitan area meant culture shock. “I did not like the move at all,” she says, but is grateful for the open-space high school she landed in. One reason: being able to do independent studies. Another: good science courses, and a better preparation for college than she might have had in her old school. 

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Dawn didn’t go to the rest room during regular school hours all through high school. “If you didn’t want to get involved in trouble,” she recalls, “if you didn’t want to be exposed to rough peers or drugs, you stayed out of the girls’ rest room. The tough kids used the rest room like their office.”  Instead, she waited after classes ended and for practice to start before going. She was active in basketball, track, and cross country. 

Try This: 

ArcGIS: Dawn's organization, ESRI, pioneered ArcGIS, software young people are learning to use to sandwich information they gather "on the ground" about how their cities and towns operate into maps. This creates towers of information that are being used to answer questions about such things as natural disasters, the spread of Covid-19, and racial equality.  Read stories about this and learn how to get involved here

GeoMentor: The American Association of Geographers hosts a geomentoring program that matches students and schools with professional geographers to work on ArcGIS projects. The GeoMentor network was set up to help young people use Geographic Information Systems. Information for teachers here.

Girl Scouts: Dawn was a Girl Scout, and recommends joining! Find out more here


4H: The Esri Education Team works with them on GIS, but the organization supports many kids through agriculture and related science.  Find it here

Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF): Dawn recommends the Society for Science's science fair. More here.

Ocean Institute at Dana Point (California) is a source for oceanography, biology, geology, geography, and more. Summer camp, too.  Learn about it here

Project Blue: Alta Sea, Port of Los Angeles: Find our more about it here

Aquarium of the Pacific is here


unclear path: 

“I was 8 when I decided that I wanted to be an oceanographer, so it was like yep, this is what I’m going to do. Then it was just a matter of finding out, how DO you become an oceanographer?” Growing up before the internet, Dawn checked out library books first, then discovered that college catalogues would tell her whether a school offered oceanography or not. Still, the pathway wasn’t obvious.  “It was not like becoming a doctor or even an artist or a lawyer or a photographer or any of these other jobs,” she says. She eventually realized that oceanography required a master’s degree — so she targeted geology as an undergraduate degree that would support her moving forward. 

nobody "like me": 

There was not a single African-American along her science trajectory. Though she had strong female models, none were scientists. So she found her role models where she could: among white men like Jacques Cousteau, the famous oceanographer — who never had any women among his crew.  Even among African-American kids, Dawn wasn’t sure where she fit in. 


“When I went to school in Maryland, I did not relate to any of those kids, because I was coming from a Hawaiian background. I had grown up around Japanese and Chinese and Filipino and Hawaiian kids. “I had some trouble in Hawaii,” she says, “but physically I looked more like a Samoan or a Tongan, so I blended in much better than someone who was from Los Angeles, someone from the mainland. So going to this high school in Columbia, Maryland, I felt completely out of place, and I didn’t feel connected to either white kids or black kids.” Sports and science helped her make a small circle of friends, and to feel that she fit in. What was most important to her comes out in this statement: “I didn’t have any difficulties or any crises in terms of who I was or what my goal was.”


trying new things:

In graduate school at Texas A & M, oceanography master’s students had a chance to go on an Ocean Drilling Program expedition (the precursor to the International Ocean Discovery Program) for the experience. Dawn parlayed this into a three-year stint as a marine technician aboard the JOIDES Resolution, the program’s drill ship. “It was three years of bliss! It was hard, but I just adored it. Oh, I was so happy to be a marine technician. As a graduate student, I looked up to those techs, I thought they walked on water, and when I had the chance to be one I just couldn’t believe it.


But she didn’t find her life’s true passion — sea floor mapping — until her doctoral program. “I decided to give geography a try, and that’s where I came face to face with a whole discipline that's associated with mapping. On the drill ship I didn’t learn very much about bathymetric or any other kind of mapping because it was all about getting the core out of the sea floor. But at the University of California at Santa Barbara I learned not only about the methods for doing the traditional mapping of the seafloor and the salinity, temperature, and oxygen in the water column, but about the latest in computerized mapping with geographic information systems.  So that was even better.”

A Lego maP?! 

Created with ESRI software, this blog post Plastic Brick Oceans fills you in on seafloor mapping through Dawn's hobby, building with Legos. You can also tell all kinds of cool narrative stories with maps that are Lego-themed and otherwise! 

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