“Deepsea Dawn” Wright

"Deepsea Dawn" Wright

Chief Scientist
Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI)

Dr. “Deepsea Dawn” Wright was born in Baltimore, MD, but raised in Maui, Hawaii. She is the Chief Scientist of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and  Professor of Geography and Oceanography at Oregon State University. Dr. Wright has written and contributed significantly to marine geographic information system (GIS) technology and environmental informatics literature. Dr. Wright was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In 2022, Dr. Wright became the first Black person to dive to Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest place on the planet.

Selected Publications: 

Nelson, T.A., Goodchild, M.F., and Wright, D.J. 2022. Accelerating ethics, empathy, and equity in geographic information science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(19): e2119967119, doi: 10.1073/pnas.2119967119, 2022.

Sayre, R., Butler, K., VanGraafeiland, K., Breyer, S., Wright, D., … and Muller-Karger, F. 2021.A global ecological classification of coastal segment units to complement Marine Biodiversity Observation Network Assessments, Oceanography, 34(2), 120-129, doi: 10.5670/oceanog.2021.219.

Wright, D.J. and Harder, C. (Ed.). 2021. GIS for Science, Volume 3: Maps for Saving the Planet, Redlands, CA: Esri Press, 228 pp., plus companion portal (ISBN: 9781589486713, 10.17128/9781589486713.

Sletten, J., D’Iorio, M., Gleason, M., Driedger, A., Vincent, T., Colegrove, C., Wright, D., and Zetterlind, V. 2020. Beyond the boundaries: How regulation-centered marine protected area information improves ocean protection assessments, biogeography, and terrestrial ecosystems, Marine Policy, 124: doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2020.

Costello, M.J., Basher, Z., Sayre, R., Breyer, S. and Wright D.J. 2018. Stratifying ocean sampling globally and with depth to account for environmental variability, Nature: Scientific Reports, 8: 11259, doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-29419-1.

Early Life and Education: 

Dr. Wright’s childhood in the Hawaiian Islands had a lot to do with her interest in oceanography. She remembers outstanding teachers who always encouraged the students to read. She got interested in reading books about the sea as a child, reading “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Treasure Island,” and anything that had to do with sea adventures. She imagined herself as a pirate or adventurer. She then thought, why not consider doing something like this for real? Another significant factor was her mother, who always encouraged her in whatever she wanted to pursue. TV was also a considerable influence, as she was thankful for “The Wonderful World of Disney,” National Geographic specials, and Jacques Cousteau. Her generation grew up with Jacques Cousteau, whether they were interested in oceanography or not. Many of his Sunday night TV specials tremendously impacted Dr. Wright. Finally, the Apollo 11 mission inspired her not to go into space but to go in the opposite direction - to explore the ocean.

Dr. Wright attended Wheaton College for her undergraduate career, where she studied geology and graduated cum laude in 1983. Dr. Wright completed a Master of Science in Oceanography from Texas A&M University in 1986. Immediately after graduating, she was hired as a seagoing marine technician for the International Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) and sailed on ten expeditions worldwide aboard the scientific drillship JOIDES Resolution.

After three years at sea with ODP and a few years after the deepsea vehicle Argo I discovered the wreck of the RMS Titanic, Dr. Wright entered a doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). While there, she worked with some of the first geographic information system (GIS) data sets collected by Argo I (or any deepsea vehicle). She became acutely aware of the challenges of applying GIS to deep marine environments. She has since completed oceanographic fieldwork (often with GIS) in some of the most geologically active regions on the planet. Dr. Wright was visited American Samoa, the East Pacific Rise, the Tonga Trench, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Juan de Fuca Ridge, and volcanoes under the Japan Sea and the Indian Ocean. In 1994, Dr. Wright graduated from UCSB with a Ph.D. in Physical Geography and Marine Geology. Her dissertation elucidates the cycling of volcanic, tectonic, and hydrothermal processes on the crest of the East Pacific Rise with GIS.


Dr. Wright began her career as a marine technician for the Ocean Drilling Program from 1986-1989. In this position, she worked on the JOIDES Resolution drilling vessel. After completing her Ph.D. in 1994, Dr. Wright completed a short postdoctoral fellowship with the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab before beginning a tenure-track faculty post in the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University in 1995.

In 1999, Dr. Wright completed one of her most significant career achievements by receiving early tenure and promotion  to associate professor after only four years at the university. In 2002, Dr. Wright was named Full Professor of Geography and Oceaongraphy. In 2011, she became Chief Scientist at Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a world-leading private GIS and spatial data science company.

Dr. Wright’s work and significant contributions to oceanography and GIS have not one unnoticed. In 2021, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sceinces and the National Academy of Sciences. In the same year, she received the Women’s Aquatic Network Woman of the Year Award and the Jacksonville University Marine Science Pioneer Award. In 2023, Dr. Wright was indicuted into the Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Hall of Fame and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Dr. Wright has authored over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and 13 books. Dr. Wright is deeply involved in several global ecosystem characterization initiatives at sea and on land, as well as the Seabed 2030, Digital Twins of the Ocean, and Deep Ocean Observing Strategy programs within the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

Importance of Mentoring: 

Dr. Wright is committed to working with students and young professionals. She works with many programs and frequently speaks to or mentors these young professionals. Dr. Wright is involved in the following programs: the DOERs (Deep Ocean Early Researchers) Early Career Mentor Program, ESRI’s Student Programs, Skype-a-Scientist, GeoMentors, the ESRI Young Professionals Network, Black in Marine Science (BIMS), and Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science (BWEEMS).


https://dusk.geo.orst.edu/vita.html and https://dusk.geo.orst.edu/media/thevault.html

Survey and interviews conducted by Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Sustainability Initiative staff. 2022-2024. Yale University-School of the Environment. New Haven, Connecticut. 

Photo Credit: 

Dawn Wright, 2023

Last Updated: