What were some of the things that interested you as a child? How did you become interested in science?

I grew up in the Hawaiian Islands, which had a lot to do with my interest in oceanography. I remember having very, very good teachers who always encouraged us to read a lot. I really got interested in reading books about the sea. I started out reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Mutiny on the Bounty, Treasure Island, anything that had to do with sea adventures. I imagined myself as a pirate or adventurer. Then I thought, why not consider doing something like this for real.

Another big factor was my mother. She was very encouraging. To this day she is always encouraging me in everything that I do.

TV was also a big influence. You see bumper stickers all the time telling you to kill your television, and I see their point. But I'm really thankful for "The Wonderful World of Disney", National Geographic specials, and Jacques Cousteau. My generation grew up with Jacques Cousteau whether we were interested in oceanography or not. There were so many of his specials that were on TV Sunday nights. That had a tremendous impact on me.

How did you go about pursuing your career?

By the time I was eight, I had pretty much decided to become an oceanographer. I wasn't sure what kind of an oceanographer I was going to become. I wasn't sure whether I was going to become a scientist, an underwater photographer, or what. By high school, I had read up on what oceanographers do. I was really interested in geology. I really liked rocks and volcanoes, so I decided to put myself on the path to geological oceanography.

In college, most people interested in oceanography major in one of the basic sciences, then study oceanography in graduate school. I went off to a small Christian liberal arts college in Illinois and majored in geology.

What did you do after college?

I went to Texas A&M University for my master's degree in geological oceanography. People with a master's degree can do a lot in oceanography. They can be technicians. They can be consulting scientists on a lot of projects. But if you want to do your own science projects and oversee oceanographic expeditions--be the master or mistress of your own destiny -- you really need a Ph.D.

So I decided to pursue a Ph.D. But first I wanted to take a break and get some more experience. So I worked for three years on a scientific ocean-drilling project as a marine technician. It was a great way to learn more about how ocean science works, how people on a ship interact, and the culture of science. By the time I finished working with the Ocean Drilling Program, I was able to think about which Ph.D. program I wanted to enter. I ended up at University of California, Santa Barbara.  I was actually in the geography program there and came out with a joint degree in geography and marine geology. That’s where I developed an interest in GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and in combining GIS with oceanographic work.

How did you get your current position at Oregon State?

I think I was at the right place at the right time. I was still working on my Ph.D. dissertation, and I got a call from Oregon State inviting me to interview for a job. Apparently they had seen my name and my thesis topic on a list in a newsletter. It was a list of either women students or minority students who were doing various things in geography.

I had to cancel the first interview because I was in a mountain biking accident. I was so banged up I couldn’t make the interview. That turned out to be even better for me because the students thought that that was so cool. To make a long story short, I was able to get a position here right out of graduate school. I’ve been here for about five years. Things have worked out extremely well since they have a wonderful combination of oceanographic studies and geography. They also have a lot going on in terms of computer science, forestry, and a lot of really neat interdisciplinary collaborations.

What is the most surprising thing about your job?

Overall, I don’t really sense that I’m being discriminated against or held back because I’m a woman or a woman of color. I’m just moving ahead to achieve and do the best that I can like anybody else in my profession.

When you are at sea on an oceanographic research vessel, there’s a lot of physical work. For instance if you are trying to deploy equipment over the side it takes quite a bit of upper body strength. There have been times when a man would come by and take something out of my hand or won’t have confidence that I can do the job that I have been assigned to do. There can be two reasons for that. One, the person might just be concerned for my safety. The other side of the coin is that the person just doesn’t think that I can do the job or that women do not belong at sea. That has happened to me at sea a couple of times. I think for at least most of the women I have worked with who have faced the same sorts of situations, we just keep doing our jobs the best that we can do. Ninety-nine percent of the time, at least in my experience, we have been able to pull our weight and do extremely well at sea.

What continues to inspire you about your job?

There are lots of things. I am inspired by my colleagues. When I read about the advances my colleagues are making in science, when someone discovers a new hydrothermal vent, finds a new way to calculate something, or makes a new discovery of a volcano, that’s really exciting. It spurs me on to keep striving with my own research. I am particularly inspired by my colleagues who are women. We do see quite a few women in science compared to ten years ago, twenty years ago, and so forth, but it’s still somewhat of a novelty seeing women achieving in certain areas. When one of us does well, I really like to see that.

I’m also inspired by my students and by the pleasure of having had several very good graduate students who have gone on to do very good work and who now have great careers.

What are some of the other things you like to do?

I think that young people might get the impression that scientists are lab rats, that we are in the lab all of the time. Perhaps I am giving that impression by talking about a 60-70 hour work week. There are all kinds of wonderful things that scientists do in their spare time. I really enjoy cycling. I enjoy road and mountain biking. Here in the Pacific Northwest there is great hiking. A lot of my friends are into whitewater rafting and climbing. I haven’t done a lot of those things yet, but I spend a lot of my free time on my bicycle. I also enjoy building Lego's. Toys are something that carried over from my childhood. I have a pirate ship in my office that is made out of 5,000 Lego pieces. It took me two weeks to build it. I really enjoy that for relaxation.

Do you have any advice for people considering a career in oceanography?

The trick I think is to keep that passion and excitement going. The way to maintain it is to have success, to do well in school, but also to have a balance of other interests. Keeping yourself a well-rounded person is a good recipe for success.

There is no escaping mathematics and gaining expertise with computers. Even if math isn’t your strongest subject, it’s a good idea to stick with it and to do as well as you can and to really get as much experience as you can on computers. That’s a big part of oceanography today. For me, GIS is all about computers. Even if you are not a computer geek, you need to have some wherewithal with computers.

The last thing is to do as much personal research as you can about oceanography. With the Internet, it’s so easy because you can go to so many web sites. All of the institutions that specialize in oceanography have great web sites. They’re great resources. The more personal research each person does, the better.

Dawn Wright

  • Professor, Department of Geosciences
  • Oregon State University

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