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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.

I hope everyone had a wonderful start to their new year!  For me, and probably everyone reading this blog, January is an exciting time to set intentions and start the year off in the way you want it to continue.  We all have goals that we want to achieve this year: to become healthier versions of ourselves, to excel in our careers, to volunteer in our communities, or maybe to treat ourselves or others with kindness at any opportunity.  I can't think of a better person to exemplify this than Patty Mims.


In November, Patty Mims, Esri's Director of Global National Government, led a 'Pay It Forward' Round Table Discussion for WeCan and Women's Geospatial Forum and encouraged all of the attendees to raise our hands and take on new challenges when we see opportunities in the workplace and in our daily lives.  I had the honor of interviewing Patty shortly after, and one thing she said stuck with me since then: "Be the person that jumps in and figures out the answer to the problem and you'll learn along the way ... sometimes we hold ourselves back because we haven't done things before or aren't experts ... but everyone is constantly learning."  


Enjoy our interview below!


Patty Mims  

What is your current position at Esri?

Director of Global National Government at Esri in Washington, D.C.


How did you find yourself at Esri?

I found myself at Esri for two reasons.  One, I was a GIS person: my undergraduate degree was in geography and my graduate degree also had a GIS concentration.  I spent the first portion of my career elsewhere, but had some friends who did work for Esri and they all mentioned how awesome it was.  Second, I met John Young, the former CIO of the CIA who worked at Esri, and he was such a dynamic, interesting, and thoughtful person.  In 2002, I decided to join Esri because I thought of it as this great and interesting company with good values and fascinating technology.  I realized John could be a great mentor and someone I could learn a lot from.


What interests you about GIS?

Funny enough, I can't imagine doing anything else!  I like the fact that GIS allows you to find answers, but also those answers aren't living in an Excel worksheet or a Word document.  The visual representation and the way we communicate with GIS is understandable and more dynamic and engaging. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but GIS is much more than a picture.  It is a better way to communicate and provide information to a lot of people so they can understand it and quickly make decisions.


What do you consider your top accomplishment?

A lot of times, we try to micromanage where we think our lives can go, but that path may not be something that we're really interested in.  I consider the fact that I went to school and got degrees in geography and did something I really love and found interesting, and that it worked out, my top accomplishment.  I really think if you follow and believe something you are passionate about, you will find a way to make a living doing this, no matter what.  It is fantastic to be a part of Esri, a company where growing is our mission: we help develop great GIS technology every day and make sure our customers are successful using that technology.


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

While I encourage everyone to volunteer at work, I think everyone should do the same in their community.  I grew up being a big part of the 4H organization which was about building skills and volunteering.  Even now I am my daughter's girl scout leader. I would love to prioritize and do much more.


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

Listen to all opinions and then make your decision. I learned to ask people "What do you think we should do?"  Sometimes what I have in my mind isn't what that person would recommend back.  Other ideas may not necessarily be better or worse, but it becomes a learning opportunity for everyone involved.  It's important to ask for the thoughts and ideas of other people instead of forcing direction.


What is your advice to women in GIS or the Tech Industry?

Always be learning, always be curious.  If you're scared about something you don't know, other people are probably scared that they don't know either.  Be the person that jumps in and figures out the answer to the problem, and you'll learn along the way.  No one knows all the answers.  Sometimes we hold ourselves back because we haven't done things before or aren't experts, but GIS is a relatively new field and everyone is constantly learning. 



At Esri, the WeCan community meets regularly to build community and share professional resources.  Once a month, we host a WeCan ‘Pay It Forward’ Round Table Discussion session where Esri leaders from across the company share their experience and advice to the group. Having recently joined the WeCan Leadership Team, I wanted to do a deeper dive into the speakers of our 'Pay It Forward' Round Table Discussion Series so that members of WeCan, the Women's Geospatial Forum, and readers of GeoNet who were unable to attend could learn a bit more about the incredible role models we are lucky enough to work with at Esri.


In September, Candace Lyle Hogan spoke about her experience coming of age in a moment of history and her career as an investigative reporter during the second wave of feminism.  Candace specialized in diversity-affirmative startups and equal opportunity issues (Title IX) and pioneered the role of a female sportswriter.  Her articles on gender discrimination were published in The New York Times and the Congressional Record, to name a few.


What is your current position at Esri?

I am an Editor and Writer at Esri Press based in Redlands, California.


How did you find yourself at Esri?

After 26 years in New York City, I moved back to Southern California, my home state, to be closer to my family.  I rented an apartment two blocks away from the Esri campus and would take walks through Redlands and the first thing I noticed about Esri were the beautiful trees.  I thought "Wow, this looks like a great place to work; I wonder what they do," but later found out it what Esri did and thought a career at Esri would never be a possibility as I couldn’t even fold a map.  But after attending a job fair, I learned Esri produced books through Esri Press and was soon hired as an Editor and Writer in 2006.


What interests you in GIS?

GIS has always interested me by its ability to make information more transparent and accessible for ordinary people.  Esri has such wonderful people on staff and diversity, which creates a pool of creativity and innovation. 


What do you consider your top accomplishment?

I was a member of the team that supported Diana Nyad's quest to swim from Cuba to Florida, accomplished on Diana's 5th try, one day before her 63rd birthday. On those swims, which went on for longer than 50 hours, I realized I had the ability to last. That no matter the circumstances, I could endure through it and keep my integrity alive and my commitment to doing professional work alive no matter what to do my best work possible.  I discovered on those swims that everyone has that ability within them - whenever every member of the crew would be pushed to their limits (not eating, exhaustion, storms), and thought they couldn't go a minute longer, they would look over the side of the boat and see Diana swimming and draw inspiration from her.  I believe my greatest gift from the experience was realizing every stranger has more potential than they know.


Diana Nyad's Cuba 5th Attempt Swim Team that succeeded in 2013, composed of 22 women and 22 menDiana Nyad's 5th Attempt Swim Team that succeeded in 2013, composed of 22 women and 22 men. 


What is your advice to women in GIS?

Stay true and believe in yourself!  That gut feeling you get?  Follow it.  Trust it.  We don't stop at our skin.  We all know and perceive much more than we think.  Believe in your own instincts. This will lead to your voice being released.  Women need to use their voice.  Acting from the heart and following your gut may be messy, but it keeps you true to yourself. And from that authentic self flows an endless supply of energy and resourcefulness for you to draw upon. There, when you choose to, you will find your voice and all the power you’ll ever need. 



Who are your female role models in the GIS community? Share their stories and accomplishments in the thread!