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.
“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 3-5 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 PhD candidate Erica Ferrer and then-PhD 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.”
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 off 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 PhD 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.”
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.”
The application period for the Fall 2022 cohort opens May 6 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. Learn more about the program on this page and apply here.
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.
About Scripps Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.
About UC San Diego
At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.