Dawn Wright, first female, Black American deep-sea explorer will speak at free webinar Friday

As part of their efforts to educate and inspire the public on all things ocean, Alta Sea, the Port of Los Angeles’s public-private ocean institute, has organized a free webinar celebrating the professional careers of three pioneering female figures in the world of ocean exploration and conservation, including Dawn Wright, the first Black American woman to deep-sea dive to the ocean floor.

The webinar on Friday, Oct. 9 begins at 10 a.m and will converge with conversations about their careers and accomplishments in helping further ocean conservation efforts, their current endeavors and the challenges each of these women has faced and still face in their respective fields. Registration is required and space is limited, to reserve your space visit the Alta Sea website, here.

Allison Fundis is a former biology teacher turned deep-sea explorer and now is chief operating officer of the Ocean Exploration Trust. Fifteen years and 50 deep-sea explorations later, Fundis has explored some of the ocean’s most remote locations including the recent expedition search for Amelia Earhart’s airplane alongside Robert Ballard, who led the discovery of the RMS Titanic in 1985.

For the last 13 years, Carlie Wiener has been in the business of educating and engaging the masses on the research and discoveries of marine scientists. At the Schmidt Ocean Institute, many of her days are spent communicating to the general public about what takes place on the institute’s research vessel Falkor, which roams the oceans surrounding Australia.

Years before Dawn Wright had made a name for herself in the scientific world as a key designer in applying land-mapping technology to the ocean floor, also known as marine GIS, Wright had already become a figure of legend as the first Black American woman to dive to the ocean floor aboard the Alvin submersible—the same submersible that explored the wreckage of the Titanic. Forty years into her professional career, formerly as a professor at Oregon State University, Wright is now the chief scientist at the Environmental System Research Institute (ESRI) helping lead the world’s largest GIS company towards their mission of mapping the entire ocean floor by 2030.

We spoke recently with Wright about her history and perspective as one of the few Black women in her fields—oceanography and geology—how women still have a long way to go in achieving greater representation in the sciences, and how she hopes this can be achieved.

Does your celebrity as the first Black American woman to explore the ocean floor ever feel strange or do you embrace this title?

I’m very modest, so I blush at it, but I take it very, very seriously especially now that we, in the US, we’re having not only this awakening about race and racial inequity but also a reckoning where the science community is being forced to face this. It’s sort of like a #MeToo movement, but it’s about race. There have been for so long—too long—too few of us who are Black who have been in science, particularly in oceanography. I can count the number of other Black women in ocean science on one hand, and most of them are biologists and I’m a geologist, so there’s still too few of us. And so I think all of us take very seriously our responsibility to be known, so that young people can see that this is possible and to look into getting into this type of career and to making the whole scientific enterprise better because the more of us who are women or who are from different ethnic backgrounds and have different perspectives, the better the science will ultimately be.

In your long career, do you see that improvements have been made, and do you still think there is much more than needs to be done in balancing the inequities you see in the sciences?

Oh, there is so much improvement that could be done. Women in the field of oceanography, that’s getting better. But then you hear about what young women are still going through while they are doing fieldwork, what they’re [still] going through with professors, at universities. This movie that’s coming out, called “Picture a Scientist” lays it all out. A couple of the women who are featured are young, younger than I am, and near the beginning of their careers, and I thought surely it would be better for them? But no, I was horrified. It’s a great movie, but it made me sad. I got my Ph.D. in the early 1990s and I had my experiences. But I thought surely it would be better for women now? But chemist Raychelle Burks, she’s a generation younger than I am and yet she has gone through experiences that are even worse. Every discipline has a different culture, but we have  a long way to go.

Can you describe the culture in your respective fields?

Well, I identify with two fields—I’m a geographer and oceanographer. The culture in oceanography is still very tough and difficult for women who are ethnic minorities. Personally, I have not had racial epithets yelled at me, I have not been physically abused, but it’s been hard being the only one. I’ve had people tell me that I’m not good enough, that I’m not going to make it, that I should do something else. But that compared to what other people are going through—have gone through, like Raychelle Burks—it’s nothing. Geography is a better field, I would say it’s more accepting field and is a discipline that is very rich and diverse. But even geography is having a reckoning right now in terms of diversity in university departments and the different sub-disciplines of geography. So it’s tough all around, but there’s so much that’s changed for the better I think especially in terms of young women being involved with and doing some fantastic work.

How long have you been advocating to improve and attract more Black and minority women in the sciences? 

I’ve been an advocate just by showing up. So just by going to a conference and giving a talk—like the one on Friday. But sometimes you show up to a conference and you’re the only one like you and you hope it’s a good experience and you hope you’re accepted. Some wonder why you are there, but others are inspired by it and ask you to speak to their class or come and speak to their students. I’ve had quite a bit of experience with it now just by being asked to talk to youth groups and speaking to 5th graders interested in geology during National Geography Awareness Week. So, I’ve been doing that for years now and talking about ocean mapping as part of that.

Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for Black women and others who are interested in geography and oceanography but perhaps feel hesitant?

If you’re interested in something and passionate about it, pursue it! Read about it on the internet. There are all kinds of wonderful experiential programs now for young people to get into both oceanography and geography. If people enjoy social media, they should be aware of, for instance, Twitter’s Black and Marine Science campaign you can find under the hashtag, #BlackandMarineScience from Nov. 29 to Dec. 5. You can also find out more about these topics on my website.

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Cheantay Jensen is an editorial intern who covers art and culture for the Hi-lo section of the Long Beach Post.