WeCan Interview Series - Dawn Wright

Blog Post created by AMillican-esristaff Employee on Feb 28, 2019

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.