Dawn Wright earns national recognition for her inspirational work in the classroom

Dawn Wright is known as "Deepsea Dawn"
Dawn Wright is known as "Deepsea Dawn"

Dawn Wright, an Oregon State University professor of geosciences, has been named Oregon Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

An OSU faculty member since 1995, Wright is a marine and coastal geography expert so passionate about her subject area that she’s known as “Deepsea Dawn.” Her popular web site with links to many interactive features can be found at http://dusk.geo.orst.edu. She has a joint appointment in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

Wright is an international expert in marine applications of geographic information science. She has taught more than 4,300 students during her 12-year tenure at OSU, in lecture and laboratory courses designed to “bring science to life.”

“Professor Wright exemplifies the very best in undergraduate teaching,” said OSU President Ed Ray. “That’s because the pioneering science she brings to each of her courses is made personal and accessible by the genuine caring she conveys to each of her students.”

Undergraduate students are often mesmerized by tales of her first-hand experiences from 25 scientific voyages across the planet, including descents to the deep-sea floor in manned submersibles and explorations of endangered tropical coral reefs. Discussions about topics closer to home include efforts to map Oregon’s near-shore geology and continental shelf, with applications many students and others can relate to — tsunami preparedness, fisheries management, coastal erosion and wave-generated electricity.

“When you go down in a submersible, it feels very much like being an astronaut,” Wright has said. “You’re going through this alien world, but it’s inner-space instead of outer space. It has that wild, exploratory feeling.”

Wright also often speaks to younger students, especially girls and underserved students aspiring to science careers. She has received numerous other honors for education and mentoring, such as the Education Award from the Oregon Assembly for Black Affairs in 2006. Wright is featured on a website about “Women Exploring the Ocean,” and was profiled in Sally Ride Science’s “What Do You Want to Be? Explore Earth Sciences.”

Editor’s note: The following profile on Professor Wright is excerpted from the Spring 2007 issue of Terra, the OSU research magazine.

Pressing her face against the jetliner window, Dawn Wright scanned the azure expanse of the shimmering ocean for a glimpse of her destination: a tiny volcanic archipelago that is barely a blip in the vast South Pacific. Located 5,000 miles from Wright’s office at Oregon State University, American Samoa is closer to New Zealand than to Hawaii.

It was 2001, and the OSU geosciences professor was on her way to the outer reaches of Oceania to study the most remote of the U.S.’s 13 national marine sanctuaries, Fagatele Bay. Using state-of-the-art sonar equipment mounted on a small survey boat, she and a team of oceanographers from the University of South Florida “pinged” clusters of sound beams into the bay’s crystalline waters. These acoustic readings produced the sanctuary’s first precise seafloor map.

The mapping, though, was just one facet of the mission. As an international innovator in marine GIS — geographic information systems — Wright was laying the groundwork for a sweeping storehouse of data about Samoa’s sanctuary. Science and policy-making are stymied, Wright points out, when data are skimpy and scattered, as they are on this distant shore. And the dearth of data is not unique to Fagatele Bay.

Wright’s bigger vision is of a new era in global ocean data management built on the “seamless merging” of data into a Web-based clearinghouse. Drawing from oceanography, geography and geology, from the disparate agencies and jurisdictions that compile oceanic data, the clearinghouse would give scientists, resource managers, fishermen and conservationists fingertip access to simulated ocean systems from anywhere on earth. It is not an easy vision to implement, but Wright is undaunted.

Her intrepid spirit took hold early — throughout a sun-drenched Maui childhood, her mother, Jeanne, repeatedly told her: “You can be anything you want to be.”

At age 8, transfixed by the televised moon walk, young Dawn briefly mulled a space career. But another TV experience tipped the scales toward ocean science: “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” “I was riveted,” she says.

In 1991, as the first woman of color to dive in the three-person autonomous craft ALVIN, Wright realized that the two careers are strikingly similar. “When you go down in a submersible, it feels very much like being an astronaut,” she says. “You’re going through this alien world, but it’s inner space instead of outer space. It has that wild, exploratory feeling.”

Today, with reefs dying and fisheries collapsing across the globe, a profound sense of urgency propels Wright’s energies. Accurate predictions — and sound policy — about the “great blue engine” that powers the planet depend, she says, on getting the data right.

Dawn Wright’s Web page

Department of Geosciences

College of Science

OSU Foundation

National Marine Sanctuaries Web site

National Science Foundation’s POWRE (Professional Opportunities for Women in Research & Education)

OSU news releases offer more information about engineering education:

Samoa Research Proves Coral Reef Recovery is Possible (5-02-06)

New System to Provide Better View of Marine Biology (9-07-05)

OSU’s Dawn Wright Receives Fulbright to Ireland (8-24-04)

Coastal Atlas Allows Personalized “Smart Maps” (2-13-04)

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