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The Courage to Escape



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Invited keynote for WISE Inspirations Network at Stanford University, May 24, 2017, 4:30-6:30 pm. Thoughts and reflections on an issue that is prescient in the minds of many academics these days: finding the time and the courage to communicate outside of academia, outside of the “ivory tower.” In Dawn's case, outside the ivory tower has meant engaging with different audiences about her science, but also “escaping” academia altogether for a new life and culture in industry. She shared some stories of engagement before and after making this “great escape” – not just the successes, but some of the hard lessons as well, some of the decisions faced along the way, what went as planned and what didn’t, who has helped the most and how, what happened during a great failure or two and why it was such a valuable experience, what she still struggles with, and what has been the most inspiring, rewarding, and just downright fun. What followed was a very interactive and spirited session! Notes are cut off in SlideShare so full notes available from Web page for the event:

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The Courage to Escape

  1. 1. WISE Inspirations Network at Stanford (WINS) The Courage to Escape Dawn Wright, Ph.D. Esri Chief Scientist
  2. 2. Based in part on a blog post of the same name See
  3. 3. The Beginning … From Maryland to Maui to Santa Barbara Maui childhood, 1980 Olympic hopeful, long jump Is “smart mapping” in my future? I hope so! 6 months in 1990 UCSB entering PhD student
  4. 4. Failure Isn’t Final … or Fatal …
  5. 5. Ph.D. = “Piled Higher and Deeper” Volume
  6. 6. Teaching, Research (including grantsmanship), Service + ?? Variety
  7. 7. The pace of everything… Velocity
  8. 8. Academicians are in Industry Too But is good science still possible there?
  9. 9. Maps for Solving the World’s Biggest Problems Helping to guide the science behind it and the science done with it.
  10. 10. Esri Contributions to Science Ecological Land Units Esri + USGS Open Water Data Scientific Python/ Python API R – ArcGIS Community Open Water Data Initiative Ecological Marine Units Esri + USGS, MCI, NOAA, NatureServe, others Citizen Science GEOSS MOU Improved Cloud Access to Imagery Esri + NASA, MRF+LERC Esri + USGS, CUAHSI, NOAA NWS, FEMA New Science Books
  11. 11. Diversity in Gender, Ethnicity, AND Age
  12. 12. Diversity in Gender, Ethnicity, AND Age
  13. 13. Esri Young Professionals Network Learn latest tech trends, innovations. Connect to industry experts + peers. Expand personal networks. Gain leadership skills, experience. Retool, recharge, reinvent.
  14. 14. Work used to be a place
  15. 15. Now, work is everywhere
  16. 16. “The Tyranny of Time….”
  17. 17. Graphic from Harvard Business Review “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time”
  18. 18. “Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside of us.” –Oliver Wendall Holmes With thanks to Karen McLeod, COMPASS
  19. 19. Don’t Be Afraid… To Show Your Zany Side … Built by Dawn, 3800+ pieces Built by Dawn
  20. 20. You Never Know… What the Impact Will Be … Created by Joseph Kinyon GIS Manager, Sonoma Land Trust L/V Dawn Wright, Created by Wilbert McKinley for 2017 Philly Brickfest, TeachFleet Youth Program Courtesy of Martin Bloxham, Barefoot Thinking
  21. 21. Courage to “Escape” Courage to “Reinvent” Managing Energy, Not Time Dawn Wright Email: Twitter: @deepseadawn

Editor's Notes

  • As a child and while growing up on Maui I was fascinated with maps but there was no “geographic information systems or GIS” then, and I was more focused on becoming an oceanographer and making the 1980 Olympics in the long jump. As a Hawaiian kid I basically went through my childhood in bare feet, and when my coach told me how much faster I could run & jump in shoes, I resisted, perhaps not unlike our Esri users still wedded to the standalone desktop instead of leveraging the new and more powerful web GIS pattern (but I digress)! The only maps that I knew of were in the book Treasure Island or the pages of the National Geographic. GIS was nowhere to be found in my educational experience until I landed at UCSB for my PhD. You’ll notice in the picture that I am wearing a Texas A&M shirt as I had just come to UCSB after living in Texas.
  • Before getting to the PhD level at UCSB there were quite a few adventures along the way. I think it’s appropriate at this point in the presentation to describe a time when I failed and/or felt that I didn’t want to continue with my work, and what I was able to do to move beyond the situation:

    I had a difficult time with my thesis research for my Master degree at Texas A&M as I was working with some data that was hard to collect and further to understand. It also involved some mathematics that for me were difficult. Despite having a major professor, he was too busy to guide me or offer any real assistance (as this was his first academic job as a young assistant professor). I basically had to teach myself what I needed to do with the help to two senior doctoral students, who were in a different department no less. Further, I had another professor telling me that what I was trying to do was too hard and that any further and similar studies in another part of the world that I was interested in were going to be impossible – too hard to obtain the data. Despite this I managed to finish my thesis and to defend it. I was told by my major professor that, although I had done a good job putting together a study and defending all by myself, that I had barely passed. He further told me that I should give up on oceanography and go to business school or law school. The “rest,” as they say, “is history,” as my first professional post immediately after obtaining my Master degree was as a seagoing ocean technician, out at sea 6 months out of the year for 2 years, assisting with (and learning about) all kinds of oceanographic science [next slide]. This helped me to get into the great PhD program at UCSB, allowing me to do not only oceanography but geography. Further, I determined to obtain my PhD if for nothing else than the opportunity to have my own graduate students that I could really guide and mentor properly, never ever neglecting them the way that I had been neglected during my Master degree. At last count I’ve advised over 50 of my own graduate students through to completion of their degrees, and been involved in helping 100s of others. Moral of the Story: Believe in yourself and NEVER GIVE UP!
  • Map of where I have been to sea – indian ocean, Antarctica and western pacific was mainly prior to grad school at UCSB. Someone at UCSB named me “Deepsea Dawn” and it stuck like glue, followed me to Oregon State and beyond. Eastern Pacific and SW Pacific dots cover UCSB, Oregon State up to Esri time
    Orange star was UCSB dissertation with GIS including Alvin submersible dives; purple star was post-doc GIS work with NOAA
  • In the world of Big Data researchers and practitioners constantly refer to the 3 Vs: volume, variety, and velocity as part of the challenges of dealing with and discovering knowledge from tremendously large and complex data sets. I contend that there are also the same 3Vs in academia, just in a different sense. Having moved to Oregon State, getting early tenure, and crossing the divide into the world of a full professor at Oregon State, I found new freedom in being able to pursue MORE projects for the greater good: taking on campus committees to improve curricula not only for my own classes but for others; serving on the National Academy of Sciences on committees that provide expertise needed by federal agencies and Congress; even thinking about ways to help communities and charities with my slightly larger paycheck; and yes, more of communicating science to policy makers, the media, and the public.

    This image and next 2 courtesy of Andrew Turner, Esri Washington DC R&D Center
  • But could I go even further? Along with my new freedom, I also came up against the reality, at least on my campus, that “to whom much is given, much is required.” Where are your new publications in the HIGHEST-impact journals? What about that 6-figure grant that you were in the running for? We need you to take on and FUND more graduate students to keep our graduate program viable! Can you speak for the college at this reception for donors? Can you create more courses for this degree program, which, by the way, need be offered both in the classroom AND online for distance ed.? Can you speak up for your discipline in the face of condescending colleagues who do not respect it and would rather see it go away?
  • This is a worthy calling indeed, and not for the faint of heart. And my heart had not fainted in 15 years as a professor. But I began to wonder if I could keep the pace that had carried me to that 15-year mark, and if there might not be a new and better life for me outside of the ivory tower, especially if it would help me to be a better, more whole person. Could I, in fact, make an ‪“escape”‬? Would I have the courage to do so? What about tenure? What about my lab that I had worked so hard to get the SPACE for and to build? What about my students?
  • What about colleagues thinking that I had “sold out” to the “dark side” of the commercial sector? Can there really be TWO outcomes working in concert together, the production of the best possible science AND the production of something really useful?
  • The industry that came calling for me was the GIS industry, and it’s leader, Esri, who asked me to be their chief scientist and also to lead their new ocean initiative. The company focuses on mapping and data for conservation, disaster aid and relief, climate change mitigation and adaptation, “geodesigning” land and ocean space use to more closely follow natural systems, protecting freshwater resources, in short, ‪using maps and geographic analysis to make the world a better place.
  • Esri invests up to 31% of its profits back into R&D, where the norm for other, similar companies is 8-10%
    We at Esri do indeed do good science too, and these are some of the recent contributions that we’ve made TO science.
    Clockwise from upper left (based on a slide prepared for the FedGIS conference in Washington, DC, hence the call-outs to US federal government agencies):

    ELU – Ecological Land Units
    The Ecological Land Units (ELU) project is a collaboration between Esri and Dr. Roger Sayre of the USGS. It was officially launched last December at the ACES 2014: A Community on Ecosystem Services meeting in Washington, DC. For the ELU, we essentially undertook a massive biophysical stratification of the planet at a finest yet-attempted spatial resolution (250 m) to produce a first ever map of distinct physical environments and their associated land cover. We also offer a concept for delineating ecologically meaningful regions that is essentially both classification-neutral and data-driven. Our intent is to provide scientific support for planning and management (including as an important variable for GIS geodesign models and apps), and to enable understanding of impacts to ecosystems from climate change and other disturbances; hence for valuation of ecosystem SERVICES. In this way, we also offer fulfillment of one of the main recommendations of the White House PCAST report on sustainable environmental capital. 

    EMU – Ecological Marine Units
    Following on from the ELU project, Esri is collaborating with over 10 partners including the USGS, NOAA, and NatureServe, in developing a standardized, robust, and practical ecosystems classification and map for all the world’s oceans, completely in 3D. Officially commissioned by The Group on Earth Observations (GEO). To inform MPA design, marine spatial planning, biodiversity observation and conservation.

    Group on Earth Observations MOU
    One of the most comprehensive efforts in place to monitor the entire face of the Earth is a group of over 140 governments and leading international organizations (GEO) seeking to establish a fully functioning Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). Esri is working with the National Research Council of Italy to integrate public scientific content from ArcGIS Online into the GEOSS data ecosystem, while encouraging the Esri GIS community to participate as contributors and users of GEOSS.

    Improved Cloud Access to Imagery: LERC/MRF
    Esri and NASA have collaborated to improve access to imagery and raster data stored in the cloud using a combination of two technologies, Meta Raster Format (MRF) and Limited Error Raster Compression (LERC). MRF is an Open raster format originally designed at the NASA JPL to optimize web access to rasters. LERC is a highly efficient algorithm that provides fast lossless and controlled lossy compression of image and raster data, and is especially suitable for geospatial applications. Esri was recently awarded a US Patent for LERC. LERC is integrated into NASA’s MRF support within GDAL (Geographic Data Abstraction Library), one of the most widely used open source projects in our industry. Esri’s LERC and its integration into MRF will enable our users to significantly reduce storage costs for enterprise image management solutions, and it will likely find its way into virtually every mapping/GIS application stack in use. Both are open sourced under an Apache 2 license.

    Open Water Data Initiative
    Esri is both a participant and stakeholder in the Open Water Data Initiative, as well as a partner in the National Flood Interoperability Experiment, developing spatial data processing and visualization tools. These help Federal agencies make the data as useful and accessible as possible (e.g., for  other Federal agencies, state and local govt, water mgmt. authorities, agriculture sector, insurance sector, investment sector, etc).
    The National Water Model is a new project that was released by NOAA last year. It is a project to forecast stream flow (cubic feet per second of water in streams). Currently they do this at about 3600 locations around the country. This new project will forecast at 2.7 million locations, a 700x increase. How they get from 3600 to 2.7 million is a combination of GIS and modeling which Esri helped develop with NOAA, NCAR, Univ of Texas, and others last year. The geoprocessing tools for that will be available on GitHub soon.

    R – ArcGIS Community
    R (aka the R Project for Statistical Computing) is the world’s fastest growing environment for statistical computing. We are working with ArcGIS and R users worldwide to develop a community to promote learning, sharing, and collaboration. This community will include a repository of free, open source, R scripts, geoprocessing tools, and tutorials.

    A whole suite of apps for Citizen Science –

    Scientific Python/Python API
    To further strengthen the link between GIS and science, we have fully integrated ArcGIS with SciPy, a Python-based ecosystem of open-source software for mathematics, science, and engineering. By integrating the ENTIRE STACK of SciPy modules with ArcGIS we have made developing scientific and technical geoprocessing tools and scripts easier and more efficient.
    The ArcGIS Python API  lets you engage with data, analytics, and visualization through a clean Python API.

    Three New Science Books from Esri Press
    Features the peer-reviewed work of leading researchers and managers for advancing science through GIS, as well as how to incorporate spatial thinking and GIS technology into research design and analysis. and
  • COURAGE TO ESCAPE, COURAGE TO RETOOL, learning a lot about industry, about THAT culture, while still remaining an academic
    It’s rare to see a brand new assistant professor at age 50 but this is NOT as uncommon in industry (e.g., the GIS industry). This is a neat thing!
  • Hence we face the tyrrany of time, and perhaps how to manage that time
    I want to say a few extra words about this because one thing that did NOT change when I left academia is the amount of time I’m spending at work. It’s still the same time but spent doing different things, which is exhilarating. In dealing with this tyranny, is it a matter of just saying “no”?
    Emilie Aries, CEO of the professional training organization “Bossed Up” to empower women to embrace the “Power of No” as an alternative to the burnout culture
    On the flip side Hollywood producer Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, exec prod of How to Get Away w/Murder) describes in her memoir “The Year of Yes” how she resolved to say YES to everything that scared her (e.g., giving an interview, making ANY kind of public appearance, let alone speaking in front of large groups), to build her confidence
    As usual, we each have to strike our own BALANCE.
  • “The resource we tend to under-appreciate and that isn’t limiting (although it might feel that way) is our energy. Our personal energy – within our bodies, minds, and spirits – is renewable. But, we have to invest in renewing it.”
    Karen McLeod, COMPASS Blog,
  • “We have much to learn from our colleagues in the business world where energy management is taking off and yielding results. It shows positive impacts on both productivity and performance (not to mention happiness and well-being). I find this incredibly motivating (and slightly terrifying). If I’m going to effect change in the world, I need to prioritize self-care and let go of the worry that bogs me down.”
    Karen McLeod, COMPASS Blog,
  • Picture on left part of “This is What a Scientist Looks Like” blog developed by freelance science writer Allie Wilkinson to challenge the stereotypical perception of a scientist.
  • Sabrina Pasterski is a 23-year-old pilot, aircraft designer, and doctoral candidate in Physics at Harvard, hailed as a possible new Einstein, already with job offers from Amazon and NASA
    Despite her amazing record starting from around the age of FOURTEEN, she was waitlisted at MIT! Two professors went to bat for her, and she was ultimately accepted, later graduating with a grade average of 5.00, the school’s highest score possible.

    “A first-generation Cuban-American born and bred in the suburbs of Chicago, she’s not on Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram and doesn’t own a smartphone.”
    ‘…hopefully I’m known for what I do and not what [social media] I don’t do.’”
  • A further note on personal health and life balance.
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