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New Fellowship Program Supports Diversity in Scientific Diving

The Scripps-led DIVERsity Fellowship Program is accepting applications for the Fall 2022 cohort through June 3

For some marine researchers, becoming a certified scientific diver is a game changer. This certification can have a profound impact on the research experiences and career opportunities available for scientists interested in the underwater environment.

But the path to scientific diver status—defined by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS)—is long, expensive and influenced by a long-standing, but ever-evolving history of unequal access to opportunities.

A new program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego seeks to break down some of these barriers, and aims to make the diving community a more inclusive space. Officially launching in Fall 2022, the DIVERsity Fellowship Program will support a small cohort of outstanding and diverse undergraduate and graduate students at UC San Diego who want to contribute to oceanographic research but face barriers to inclusion in scientific diving programs.

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A group of Scripps graduate students return from their dive. Photos by Erik Jepsen/University Communications.

“Our goal with the DIVERsity Fellowship Program is to dismantle some of the systemic barriers that exist for underrepresented students who want to become scientific divers,” said Scripps Director of Diversity Initiatives Keiara Auzenne. “As a leader in scientific diving, Scripps has an opportunity here to help build a more inclusive future not only for scientific divers, but for the diving community as a whole.”

The initiative has already received six years of funding thanks to contributions from several members of the Scripps Director’s Council and the Scripps Education Department. Dive equipment manufacturer ScubaPro is also offering support by supplying the first cohort of fellows with soft gear including wetsuits, masks, fins and snorkels.

Each year, the program would see a new cohort of three to five fellows who would receive diver training in addition to support by a dedicated faculty sponsor and a mentor who is an active scientific diver. Students lacking experience in the water would have access to swimming and water safety classes offered through UC San Diego Recreation. Mentors will help fellows sign up for the correct swim classes (as necessary), offer advice on how to become a better diver, and provide mental, emotional and professional support as the mentee moves through their certification process.

Once a DIVERsity fellow has achieved scientific diver certification, they will serve as an official mentor for the next cohort.

Doors opened through diving

The program concept emerged several years ago following conversations between Scripps doctoral candidate Erica Ferrer and then-doctoral candidate Alyssa Griffin. The two had shared the financial, physical and emotional challenges they had experienced while completing their respective dive programs, and the successes that followed their certifications.

“We were kind of astounded by the fact that once we got this certification doors just opened—like magically opened,” said Ferrer, who was certified while completing her undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz. “Suddenly you have access to all these opportunities that maybe you didn't even know existed before.”

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Scripps graduate students participate in a scientific diving course in 2019.

While Ferrer loved learning to dive and participating in subtidal science, she had to take on debt in order to pay for her training. Thankfully for her the risk paid off, as it opened the door to a summer job conducting research of Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples, Italy. She also thinks the certification helped her get into the marine biology graduate program at Scripps, where she is now researching sustainability in small-scale fisheries.

Now she wants to make sure other students, who might face similar financial challenges, have an easier experience in becoming scientific divers.

“I want to make sure that students like myself feel like they can participate in scientific diving and don't have to take on debt to do it, because it was a risk,” she said. “Looking back on my decision to get certified, it just seems so clear, but when I was going into it, I didn't know if I was going to be able to recoup the costs. I didn't know if I was making a terrible financial and life decision. I just had no idea and it was very scary.”

Griffin, who learned how to dive very late in her doctoral program at Scripps due to financial barriers, called scientific diving “transformational” to her work in marine geochemistry.

“Diving really opened a whole world of possibilities in terms of the questions that I could address and the processes that I could observe,” said Griffin, now a Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Davis. “It really just allowed me to broaden my science and my ability to conduct science.”

Ferrer and Griffin worked closely with Auzenne and Scripps Dive Safety Officer Christian McDonald to write the proposal for the DIVERsity Fellowship, and got the green light for the program to take off in Fall 2022.

Barriers to success

In their proposal, Ferrer and Griffin identified cost as one of the biggest hurdles for would-be scientific divers. In addition to the actual dive classes, certification requires expensive dive equipment, medical exams and more, costing several thousands of dollars. Course prerequisites provide another barrier, as previous experience with scuba diving and advanced swimming proficiency are often required—further impacting marginalized groups who have been systematically denied access to the water.

Ferrer and Griffin also noted the general lack of ethnic, racial and gender diversity in the broader scuba diving community. Official statistics made available by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) suggest that the recreational dive community is heavily dominated by middle- and upper-class men, with the majority reporting salaries of more than $100,000 a year. Demographics within the scientific diving community are not currently tracked or made available to the public, but anecdotal evidence suggests that divers of color are few and far between.

Turning the tide

Through the DIVERsity Fellowship Program, Ferrer and Griffin hope Scripps can help prompt a culture change within the diving community, serving as both a partner and a model for other organizations and institutions to support diversity and inclusion in diving.

Scripps is well poised to lead such an effort, with more than a century of experience in underwater exploration and seven decades of daring science via scuba diving. In 1954, Scripps founded the first ever scientific diving safety program, setting the standard for diver training at the University of California and inspiring the creation of other scientific diving programs like it across the world.

“I think the status and reputation of Scripps’ Scientific Diving Program provides a really important opportunity to model this program and pilot this program,” said Griffin, “and we hope that other institutions will follow.”

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Two Scripps graduate students prepare for a dive as part of a course in 2019.

Several other programs that support diversity in diving are already underway, including The Diversity Project at UCLA.

McDonald, who currently runs the Scientific Diving Program at Scripps, said he’s looking forward to supporting the effort at UC San Diego.

“I've seen over the years how transformational the experience of diving and access to the ocean can be for folks,” he said. “It's exciting for me to try to foster opportunities for folks who would otherwise not have access to the sea or not have access to the ocean, to just create a pathway for that and to see how we can help transform their experience.”

Applications for the Fall 2022 cohort will be accepted through June 3. The program is open to undergraduates and graduate students at UC San Diego, with priority given to underrepresented students whose research would benefit from scientific diving certification. Visit the Scripps SCUBA DIVERsity webpage to learn more about the program and view the Scripps SCUBA DIVERsity Fellowship Program Application, 2022 - 2023 to apply.

Philanthropic gifts like those in support of the DIVERsity Fellowship Program contribute to the Campaign for UC San Diego—a university-wide comprehensive fundraising effort concluding June 30, 2022. Alongside UC San Diego’s philanthropic partners, the university is continuing its nontraditional path toward revolutionary ideas, unexpected answers, lifesaving discoveries and planet-changing impact.