The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Dawn Wright Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

June 10, 2016


Dawn Jeannine Wright was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1961, and spent her formative years growing up in Hawaii on the island of Maui. It was during this time that Wright developed a great love for the ocean, while also cultivating a passion for science. Knowing that she would need to specialize in a primary science prior to studying oceanography, Wright decided to focus on geology, in part because of her proximity to Hawaii's volcanoes.

In 1979, after completing her high school education in Maryland, Wright enrolled at her mother's alma mater, Wheaton College, to begin her undergraduate coursework in Geology. In 1983, following the conclusion of her bachelor's degree, Wright moved on to Texas A&M University, where she had been accepted into the school's prestigious Oceanography program. During her student years at A&M, Wright participated in her first ocean cruise and collected data on the Tonga Trench that she used to write her master's thesis on marine gravity modeling. Wright then moved directly into a marine technician position with the university's Ocean Drilling Program, and spent the next three years collecting samples of rock and sediment in locations ranging from Antarctica to Latin America to Oceania.

In 1990, Wright enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of California - Santa Barbara, which had recently obtained a major grant to create a National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis. Although it did not have an Oceanography program at the time, UCSB was home to several physical oceanographers. Included among them was Dr. Rachel Haymon, who reached out to Wright, requesting her assistance with interpreting Geographic Information System (GIS) data that Haymon had collected from the ocean floor. Wright quickly emerged as a valued colleague and, as an outgrowth of this work, was also afforded the opportunity to participate in a series of deep dives in an ALVIN submersible. Her experiences exploring the ocean floor led to Wright receiving a nickname that stuck: "Deep Sea Dawn." She completed her doctorate in 1994, authoring a dissertation titled, "From Pattern to Process on the Deep Ocean Floor: A Geographic Information System Approach."

Wright's association with Oregon State University came to pass not long after she completed her Ph.D. In 1993, the university's Department of Geosciences began advertising for a new position, and Wright emerged as a desirable candidate because of her capacity to cross disciplines. In recruiting her to OSU, the department arranged for Wright to conduct an eight-month post-doctoral fellowship at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. Following that, in Fall 1995, Wright formally joined the Geosciences faculty at Oregon State.

Wright remained an active member of the OSU faculty for sixteen years, during which time she created a GIS learning curriculum and conducted influential research on the geology and geography of the deep seas and the ocean floor, focusing primarily on the south Pacific. She was promoted to full professor after only seven years at OSU and, in 2007, she received the Carnegie Foundation's U.S. Professor of the Year Award for the state of Oregon.

In 2011, Wright accepted a position as Chief Scientist at Esri, a GIS software firm with headquarters in southern California. She is presently a courtesy professor at OSU.