With a work history at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego that stretches back more than 30 years, Steve Diggs has learned a thing or two about working with scientific data. Lots and lots of data. Many different aspects and flavors of data. Even more so, Diggs has learned over the years how to effectively work with the people at Scripps and across the globe who generate, access, and scrutinize that data.
Diggs and his team archive and manage hydrographic data, including physical and chemical measurements, and maintain links with international colleagues for coordinating global data sets. Such data give clues about the physics of water transportation, internal waves, and even measurements for deciphering the age of water.
“I have to deal with all kinds of different people so I’ve learned that having an open viewpoint to how people think is key,” said Diggs, who started working at Scripps as a UC San Diego undergraduate in 1982 and is now a data manager with Scripps Ship Operations and Marine Technical Support. “What makes you really effective at your job is being able to deal with different cultures. It’s dealing with people from different backgrounds who have different outlooks on similar subjects.”
Numerous aspects of his job have kept him anchored at Scripps, but two reasons stand out: the far-reaching impact of Scripps research and the people he interacts with on a daily basis.
“The biggest reason I’ve been here so long is split right down the middle: working with smart people and the global impact on the health of the planet,” said Diggs. “I’m constantly amazed at people’s innovation and thinking outside the box here.”
Diggs was raised in the southern Los Angeles city of Compton, Calif., in a household that featured diverse influences with a mother from the southern city of Hope, Arkansas—made famous as the hometown of Bill Clinton—and a father who grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, adjacent to a Navajo Native American reservation.
Diggs credits his private high school education as the bridge that gave him life-changing exposures to math, science, engineering, and music—experiences that “made my life measurably better,” he says. Summer trips with his family to San Diego gave him a youthful yearning to some day work at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
That opportunity opened up as a UC San Diego undergraduate. An internship gave Diggs experience writing a computer programming language required for a Scripps job vacancy in physical oceanography, which he landed.
Diggs went on to thrive at Scripps, rising with new projects in data management as opportunities across the oceanographic sciences emerged. He also began giving back to the communities around him, serving on the board of the San Diego Council of Black Engineers and Scientists as well as volunteering his athletic skills and knowledge as a triathlon coach for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
In 2010, after a handful of racist incidents ensnared UC San Diego, including an inflammatory so-called “Compton Cookout” that mocked and stereotyped his native city, Diggs joined with former Scripps Director Tony Haymet and several Scripps graduate students to help change ideas about his hometown.
They visited Compton High School to speak to students and teachers directly, letting them know what Scripps and UC San Diego are like on the inside. They also created Focus on the Future, a summer program in which Compton High School and other students visited Scripps for immersive education and activities, from working in labs to heading to sea on a Scripps research vessel.
Diggs is adamant that his race has not held him back at Scripps or anywhere else in the world of science.
“Scripps prides itself on acquiescing to the facts,” said Diggs. “It’s data-driven. Where Scripps has made a significant encouraging turn is in gender. There were very few women here only a few years ago, and now we see that number has dramatically risen, especially with graduate students.”
To the next generation of students looking to rise from diverse backgrounds to become the next scientist or engineer at Scripps or other prestigious institutions, Diggs strongly recommends they keep an eye out for ways to become immersed in their fields of interest, seizing immersive experiences through avenues such as volunteering and internships.
“Look for opportunities to be mentored,” he advises. “It can be hard, but very rewarding for the independent person to look for these opportunities. A good internship exposed me to the right set of skills that got me to Scripps. It absolutely changed my life. I can’t see myself doing anything else in my career. It’s got all the things that I need in my life: engineering, data—which I’m in love with—and earth science.”
-- Mario C. Aguilera