Monday, January 20, 1997

When she's not underwater exploring the geology of the sea floor, Dawn Wright, 35, spends most of her time in her Oregon State University office.
CHERYL HATCH /Gazette-Times

Sea floor inspires assistant geo-sciences professor

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Gazette-Times reporter

Dawn Wright grew up in Hawaii surrounded by water.

Throw in Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson novels, and college-educated parents.

But what's the final ingredient for producing an ocean-oriented scientist?

``Watching Jacques Cousteau on TV, that's what did it for me,'' jokes Wright, 35, an assistant geo-sciences professor at Oregon State University.

Wright came to OSU just a year ago to take on her first full-time faculty job - one of 30 full-time women faculty among the College of Science's 179 instructors and professors.

Her office is like a home crammed with mementos of her work at OSU: brightly colored maps she's produced, shelves of journals, a Lego pirate ship and photos of her dog, Lydia.

Her research focuses on the geology of the sea floor. She just returned from a trip near Easter Island, in the southeast Pacific.

She's been on, above or up to 1 and 1/2 miles below the surface following in the steps of her French idol. She's studied areas frequented by underwater volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, strange lifeforms such as giant tubeworms and vast volcanic gouges on the ocean floor as vast as the Grand Canyon.

``In terms of boundaries, it's one of those that's covered (by water),'' said Wright. ``We've been missing the big picture of how the earth is working.''

But even before her arrival in Beaver-land, Wright was doing some revolutionary work mapping sea floors that helped reverse some old theories.

She began using geographic information systems technology - which translates acoustic waves into topographical maps - as part of her theses while at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Five hundred miles southwest of Acapulco, at the east Pacific rise - a long slash of a volcano - Wright and a team of scientists began to understand the process of ocean floor creation based on her mapping.

They realized how fast material was belched from the ridge, how much material was involved and how it formed the sea floor based on the GIS. Also, the system of sea floor creation was based on several large lava-seeping cracks which filled in other cracks.

``It isn't like a cure for cancer,'' Wright said. ``We know the Earth is dynamic, so it's like testing a powerful car - a Ferrari.

``You know it's powerful, but you don't know how fast it can go.''

Sherman Bloomer, chair of the geosciences department, said Wright's work was ``(The) first time people understood how fast (ocean floors) changed.

``It could be just in days.''

Wright is aware of the low numbers of full-time women faculty in the sciences.

But, like many women, she firmly believes OSU and other universities are getting nothing but better.

She said women who choose sciences tend to hit a wall between receiving their doctorates and before earning tenure.

``There's incredible competition right now for tenure track positions,'' Wright said. ``You have to keep publishing. One year off can put your career on hold for a long time.

``If you stop to have a child, or get married, or stop for any reason, you fall behind.''

Wright earned her bachelor's degree in 1983 at Wheaton College in Illinois, her master's from Texas A&M in 1986, and her Ph.D in 1994 from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Between her master's degree and doctorate she worked for a few years on a drilling ship taking core samples from the ocean floor. The experience, support and travel - from Antarctica to Japan - re-ignited her research fire after a bad experience with a poor adviser.

She's currently on line for tenure in 2001. In the meantime, like other professors in line for tenure, she's dealing with 16-hour days teaching classes, conducting research and doing community service.

Starting a family isn't a concern.

``The only thing holding me back is my dog,'' said Wright. ``I'm so happy right now, I haven't thought about marriage or kids.''

Women need to have confidence in their scientific ideas or when speaking at meetings. They may encounter struggle to prove themselves as ``real scientists,'' and occasionally women have to go out of their way to prove they can pull their own weight.

Such problems generally involve older faculty and not the younger crop of scientists and faculty.

``OSU is kinder and gentler that way,'' she said. ``I've had very few bad experiences.''

To succeed, she advises women to seek opportunities, find a supportive mentor and choose an exciting field.

The work is time consuming, she said, but the rewards easily outweigh drawbacks.

``Everything is exciting,'' Wright said. ``There's so many areas we haven't mapped yet. It's all going to be such a surprise and it's definitely not an eight-to-five job.

``But if you love it...'

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Last modified on January 20, 1997