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Scripps SCUBA DIVERsity Fellowship Helps Train Scientific Divers

Scripps Institution of Oceanography program promotes diversity and inclusion in scientific diving.

Five people dressed in scuba gear walk towards the camera on a pier
Members of the second cohort from the Scripps SCUBA DIVERsity Fellowship program include (pictured from left to right): Roland Ovbiebo, Jorge Toledo Marín, Diana Peña Bastalla, James Waterford and Alonzo Houston. Photo: Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego

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This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “Next Gen.”

On a cold Wednesday morning in January, scuba trainees make their way down the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier in wetsuits, eager to take another step toward their certification as scientific divers. As the second cohort of the SCUBA DIVERsity Fellowship program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, these divers are part of a concerted effort to diversify the field of scientific diving. 

The SCUBA DIVERsity Fellowship program, launched in 2022, increases access to scuba training for students who want to contribute to research and explore the ocean but face barriers to joining the dive community, including cultural, physical, emotional or financial ones.  

"As a leader in scientific diving, Scripps has an opportunity to help build a more inclusive future — not only for scientific divers but for the diving community as a whole,” says Keiara Auzenne, director of diversity initiatives at Scripps Oceanography. 

Since 1954, Scripps Oceanography has set the standard for diver training at the University of California. The Scientific Diving Program has produced hundreds of scientific divers, including some of the world’s most prolific environmental researchers and advocates who are trained in the use of underwater techniques and technology to safely conduct underwater research. Today, the program oversees between 150 and 200 active scientific divers on the UC San Diego campus while certifying approximately 32 new scientific divers each year.

Yet scuba diving as a whole maintains a noticeable absence of diversity due to factors such as socioeconomic barriers, limited access to training opportunities and a general lack of representation that deters participation by people from non-white backgrounds. Additionally, the path to scientific diver status — defined by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences — is long (a minimum of 100 hours of training) and expensive. Some students arrive on campus with diving gear, experience and even some diving certifications that they’ve obtained through school extracurriculars or family life. But this is not the case for all students.

The SCUBA DIVERsity Fellowship program hopes to change that.

In 2018, the program was initiated by two women of color, then-Scripps doctoral candidates Erica Ferrer, MS ’19, PhD ’23 and Alyssa Griffin, PhD ’20. Ferrer, now a Chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Cruz, and Griffin, now an assistant professor at UC Davis, drafted the proposal for the SCUBA DIVERsity Fellowship program at Scripps Oceanography to make the diving community a more diverse and inclusive space. 

“I achieved scientific diver certification, but I took on a lot of debt to do that,” Ferrer says, explaining that her motivation for developing the fellowship was to create a path for others that avoided debt, isolation and other hardships she and Griffin faced on their path to academic success in marine studies.

“As a leader in scientific diving, Scripps has an opportunity to help build a more inclusive future — not only for scientific divers but for the diving community as a whole.”
Keiara Auzenne, director of diversity initiatives at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The ability to become a certified scientific diver can be game changing. Certification has a profound impact on research experience and career opportunities available to scientists interested in the underwater environment.

As part of their fellowship, students in the SCUBA DIVERsity program are provided financial assistance to achieve scientific diver certification as well as support from faculty and peer mentors who are active scientific divers. Swimming and water safety classes are offered through UC San Diego Recreation for students who lack water experience. Mentors are available to help fellows sign up for the correct swim classes, offer advice on how to become a better diver and provide mental, emotional and professional support as fellows move through their certification process. 

“The program is also about creating connection and community,” says Auzenne. “We’re looking to build a tiered mentoring program and to have more meetups and opportunities for the participants to talk with diverse faculty who use diving in their research. Building that broader community helps with retention because you feel that other people are on this journey with you.” 

Watch Now: Step on Scripps Pier and experience this groundbreaking program.

Scripps Oceanography alumna Analisa Freitas, MAS MBC ’23 was a part of the first SCUBA DIVERsity cohort. Her scientific diving certification, obtained in 2022, has opened doors by allowing her to meet other scientific divers of color from across the country and participate in diving projects in Florida and Peru. 

“Being a part of this program meant my dreams of becoming a marine conservationist would actually become reality,” says Freitas.

The fellowship program is made possible thanks to philanthropic contributions from several members of the Scripps Director’s Council and the Scripps Education Department. 

As the sound of laughter rises amid the rolling tide, the second SCUBA DIVERsity cohort reaches the end of the pier. For them, the ocean horizon is more than a beautiful sight — it is the call to a new adventure, a new opportunity and a chance to change the world.  

This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “Next Gen.”

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