Skip navigation
All Places > Women's Geospatial Forum > Blog > 2019 > February

Over the course of February, Esri celebrated Black History Month by highlighting the outstanding trailblazers and role models at Esri whose significant contributions ripple through the scientific community every day.  Although black history deserves more than just one month out of the year, I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight Dawn Wright's story and impacts in the STEM and GIS community that are, to say the least, worth recognizing. 


I owe a massive thank you to Dawn Wright for the incredible honor of interviewing her for Black History Month about her position at Esri, the experience she has gained throughout her scientific career that led her to this point, and the advice she was willing to share to those of us in the GIS community. 


Enjoy our interview below!



What is your current position at Esri?

I am the Chief Scientist of Esri.


What do you love most about your position as Chief Scientist of Esri?

Reporting to Jack and getting to see his thought processes and passion up close and personal, as well as working across all the many teams at Esri, interacting with so many passionate and talented people, and serving as their science “Force Multiplier.”


How did you find yourself at Esri?

I have been at Esri for 7 years now, having been recruited from my former post at Oregon State University as a professor of geography and oceanography. 

 From Dawn’s post from her Oregon State University blog, which includes the full story behind her transition to Esri:


"Ultimately, one of the biggest reasons that I’ve been happy at Esri is that I still remain an academic, and am charged as Chief Scientist to do so. In fact, I basically do the same things except for having to teach and constantly chase after grant money. I am still doing research, still publishing, reviewing papers and NSF proposals, still advising a doctoral student, doing occasional lectures and workshops, and a lot of science policy/service (e.g., National Academies, NOAA Science Advisory Board, journal editorial boards, etc.). I’m still going to the same academic conferences, helping Esri to be known as a member of the scientific community rather than "just" a software vendor. There have been challenges as well, but the pluses have far outweighed the minuses. Combine all of this with working directly for a wonderful CEO in a privately-owned company that is non-hierarchical, low-key, with, as President Obama once quipped, 'no peacocks, no jerks, no whiners,' and I feel blessed."



What interests you in GIS?

The possibilities and progress that we are making on the 3D front, as well as space-time cubes, and other features that scientists really need such as geoprocessing functions in Pro, Python, & R integration, and the new world of Python notebooks.


What do you consider your top accomplishment?

I have mentored over 100 graduate students and advised them through to the completion of their Master and Doctoral degrees. These are my “academic children."


Is there anything about yourself you'd like to share?

A fun tidbit is that I was an Olympic hopeful in 1980 for the long jump, but a knee injury playing high school basketball ended that dream. And even if I had qualified, the USA boycotted the 1980 Olympics (hosted by the Soviet Union) and NO one was able to go. 


What is the worst advice you've ever received, and what did you learn from that?

Worst advice: “Give up on oceanography and go to business school or law school!”



I had a difficult time with my thesis research for my Master degree at Texas A&M as I was working with some data that was hard to collect and further to understand. It also involved some mathematics that for me were difficult. Despite having a major professor, he was too busy to guide me or offer any real assistance (as this was his first academic job as a young assistant professor). I basically had to teach myself what I needed to do with the help to two senior doctoral students, who were in a different department no less.


Further, I had another professor telling me that what I was trying to do was too hard and that any further and similar studies in another part of the world that I was interested in were going to be impossible – too hard to obtain the data. Despite this I managed to finish my thesis and to defend it. I was told by my major professor that, although I had done a good job putting together a study and defending all by myself, that I had barely passed. He further told me that I should give up on oceanography and go to business school or law school. The “rest,” as they say, “is history,” as my first professional post immediately after obtaining my Master degree was as a seagoing ocean technician, out at sea 6 months out of the year for 2 years, assisting with (and learning about) all kinds of oceanographic science [next slide]. This helped me to get into the great PhD program at UCSB, allowing me to do not only oceanography but geography.


Further, I determined to obtain my PhD if for nothing else than the opportunity to have my own graduate students that I could really guide and mentor properly, never ever neglecting them the way that I had been neglected during my Master degree. At last count I’ve advised over 50 of my own graduate students through to completion of their degrees, and been involved in helping 100s of others.


Moral of the Story: Believe in yourself and NEVER GIVE UP!


Is there a specific black woman from history who inspires you?

Mae Jemison, as the first African-American woman to go into outer space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour (1992). I had the chance to speak to her on the phone last year, which was an absolute thrill, and fun comparing notes as I was the first African-American woman to go into “inner space” in the deep submersible Alvin (1991). And I absolutely adore the story of story of engineer, Mary Jackson, mathematician Katherine Johnson, and mathematician turned computer scientist Dorothy Vaughan as told in the movie “Hidden Figures.” I’ve read that there are astronauts at NASA who had not heard of about the role that women of color played in the success of NASA’s Mercury mission in the early 1960s, especially John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth in 1962. Katherine Johnson is still living at age 100, in Hampton, VA.


What is your advice to women in GIS?

Read the new Esri Press book Women in GIS: Mapping Their Stories, including my Foreword and continue to be inspired!


In honor of Black History Month, the AGU (American Geophysical Union) interviewed Dawn in their Third Pod From the Sun Podcast to celebrate Today's History Makers.  The podcast interview can be found here


Dawn also wanted to share the Let Science Speak video series, which is a 6-part, web-based short film series and activation campaign aiming to call America’s attention to the importance of science in one’s daily life, as well as to the damaging effects of censorship, and the suppression of important scientific data. Let Science Speak seeks to rally public support for scientists and the vital work they do every day.


This public support is important because scientists are now on the front lines of some of the gravest challenges facing our planet, including climate change, ecological degradation, and the loss of biodiversity. And many of them face exceptionally difficult circumstances right now. Not only is science funding being cut or eliminated, but many scientists – especially those working in the increasingly politicized area of climate change – are themselves being attacked in ways we've never seen before. 


Let Science Speak represents a timely opportunity to help the world better understand and see scientists as fellow human beings, as well as how powerful their work is and how important this work is to people’s everyday lives.

The Esri Developer Summit is right around the corner, and women of geospatial sciences will be there!  


DevSummit officially begins March 5 at the Palm Springs convention center in sunny Southern California, and Esri's internal Women's Empowerment, Career Advancement and Networking group, WeCan, is hosting a Women's Idea Exchange for women in development at the conference.   


Join us on March 6 from 2-3 pm and hear what other women are working on, and maybe even share your own work with the community.  


Also, be sure to stop by the Women in GIS (WiGIS) booth. WeCan partners with WiGIS for events, webinars and meetups, so make sure you go say hello.  See you in Palm Springs! 


Lisa Perez Jackson

Posted by RKamau-esristaff Employee Feb 22, 2019

The participants of the Women’s Empowerment and Career Advancement Network group (WeCan) have spent this past month celebrating and commemorating the contributions of women of color, especially black women, to the fields of conservation, GIS, and other social causes. This, the final entry in our Black History Month showcase, honors the work and active legacy of Liza Perez Jackson.

Born February 8, 1962 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lisa Perez Jackson was adopted two weeks later and raised in New Orleans by postal worker Benjamin Perez and his wife Marie, a secretary. Her mother notes her keen interest in the injustices of social inequality, economic disparity, and environmental issues. Growing up, Lisa vocalized her dismay at the social and environmental cost of pollution of the waterways and canals of New Orleans-- an environmental tragedy resulting from carelessly run oil refineries and unregulated drilling.


 A self-proclaimed “geek”, and never one to back down from doing what she believed in, Lisa put herself on an educational path that would see her graduating from Tulane’s School of Chemical Engineering summa *** laude in 1983 as one of a few black women in her class. After graduating from Princeton with her master’s in 1986, she applied her chemical engineering degree to her work at Clean Sites, Inc.---a non-profit whose mission is to manage environmental cleanup projects. This was followed by her appointment as one of the staff engineers at the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) Superfund program.


By 2002, Lisa Jackson had made a name for herself within the EPA and was appointed as assistant Commissioner to New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in 2002; by 2006 she was Head Commissioner. Prior to her appointment, the NJ DEP was politically divided in a bitter war over how to address the state’s environmental problems while not alienating the chemical companies stationed there who provided jobs but also polluted the state to the point where it was one of the most polluted in the nation. Jackson was unafraid. She went hard after repeat offenders in some of the state’s most polluted areas and put New Jersey on a path to healing by announcing a goal to curb emissions to 80% below 2006 levels by 2050. She protected more than 900 miles of state waterways by using the highest regulations outlined in the Clean Water Act and was a vocal critic of the Bush Administration’s dismissive approach to dealing with environmental issues.


Environmentalist critics did not always laud her efforts, complaining that she was too lenient with big business and developers especially when it came to establishing more stringent groundwater regulations and supervising hazardous waste cleanups. She was so adept at navigating this minefield that she was named chief of staff by Governor Jon Corzine in 2008—a posting that was short-lived due to her nomination to head up the EPA by President-elect Barack Obama that same year. Jackson is the first person of African American descent to serve as EPA Administrator, as well as the fourth woman and second New Jersey native to hold the position.


She went to work with a vengeance, declaring in a written statement on December 8, 2009, that the finding, which declares carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases a threat to public health, marks the start of a U.S. campaign to tackle greenhouse gas. In response to this public health threat, she put in place tougher regulations. In many public arenas, she vocalized the belief that the burden is on humans to reverse the damage we’ve done to the planet in order to face off impending, cataclysmic climate change.


On Dec, 27, 2012, Jackson announced that she would be stepping down from her position as EPA administrator citing her belief that the Obama administration would move to support the Keystone pipeline against her recommendation, and she did not want this to occur on her watch. Lisa now works at Apple Inc, and oversees Apple’s environmental issues as vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives.

Lisa Perez Jackson’s legacy will be one of demonstrating how immediate environmental action in the face of opposition can spark noticeable environmental change. This makes her a role model to young women of color everywhere: yes, your voice can be heard; yes, your work has value and can improve the lives of affected communities. Her work encourages us to never give up, to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, and follow the science that bring us into a world where clean water, clean air, and environmental conservation is the primary goal, not an afterthought.



ARTICLE BY: Femi Aladi, Geocoding Developer



Happy International Day of Women and Girls in Science!

This year's theme as developed by the UN is Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth:

“Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Over the past 15 years, the global community has made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. Yet women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science.”

The full message is inspirational – read it here:

We hear that in order to encourage women and girls to pursue scientific careers, we should showcase the amazing women that are in the field now. That’s why I’m excited that Esri Press is releasing the new Women in GIS book this quarter, with 23 stories about how “ordinary girls with very different passions have become extraordinary women and made significant contributions to our world.” One of my favorite people -- talented writer Candace Hogan -- helped put these stories together, including one from Esri’s coordinate systems expert Margaret Maher (author of Lining Up Data in ArcGIS: a Guide to Map Projections). You can read more about the book here:


Dr. Ashanti Johnson

Posted by RKamau-esristaff Employee Feb 8, 2019

In light of Black History Month, participants of the Women’s Empowerment and Career Advancement Network group (WeCan) are commemorating this month by highlighting women of color, specifically black women, who have made significant contributions to conservation, GIS, as well as other social causes. We’ll publish the blog posts every Friday of this month, so stay tuned to learn about influential black women and their work.


This week, we’d like to highlight Ashanti Johnson. Ashanti has also made some contribution to the oceanography field, as does our very own Dawn Wright, Chief Scientist of Esri. She is a chemical oceanographer and Geo-chemist. Currently, she is the CEO and Superintendent of Cirrus Academy, a statewide STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) charter school system in Georgia. She graduated with a B.S. in Marine Science from Texas A&M University-Galveston, where she made history by becoming the first African American student body president. She then went on to receive a PhD in Oceanography from the same university in 1999.

She has been involved in various initiatives promoting diversity-focused scholarly activities that facilitate research and professional development experiences for students who represent diverse socioeconomic, cultural, gender, racial ,and academic backgrounds. She serves as director for two initiatives under the NASA umbrella: the NASA One Stop Shopping Initiative and the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success initiative, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.


In 2010, she received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring at the White House in recognition of her work bridging professional development activities for underrepresented minorities. About 3 years ago, she received a 2016 American Geophysical Union Excellence in Geophysical Education Award and was later conferred as an American Geophysical Union Fellow. Last year, she was recognized as one of the 10 Black Women changing the world via science and technology in Ebony Magazine.


Ashanti Johnson is a force to be reckoned with, and it was without  question that she be highlighted this week in commemoration of Black History Month.