Dawn Murray

Love of Living Beings Leads to Environmental Activism and Education

As a child, Dawn Murray walked the beaches of Santa Barbara after big storms looking for kelp holdfasts that had washed up on the sand. When she found one, she would search the bundle of slimy kelp to check for sea creatures that had ridden in with them and were now stranded on the inhospitable, sandy margin. Each time Murray found a creature—maybe a baby lobster, sea snail, urchin, tube worm, baby octopus, or brittle star—she would put it in a bucket. Later she swam out into the cold Pacific, trying to keep the bucket above her head. When she reached the kelp forests, she dove as deep as she could before releasing the creatures. She explains that she did this “so that they didn’t get eaten as they fell through the water column.”

“I just couldn’t stand the thought of something dying, if I could save them,” she says.

In the years since, that protective impulse has driven Murray to study and advocate for marine creatures. It led her to complete a PhD in Ocean Sciences, to spend five years doing intensive research work at a leading marine biology institute, and for the last decade to lead marine biology classes and establish the Environmental Studies concentration at Antioch University Santa Barbara. Now, as part of Antioch University Online, Murray is launching and directing a whole new Bachelor of Science program in Environmental Studies, Sustainability, and Sciences.

In some ways setting up this program is the culmination and application of these years of work. When I called her up recently Murray told me, “This is something that I’ve always wanted to do.” She is excited to get the word out about the program she is launching, and she was generous and eloquent in describing both why the degree is so important and how the path of her life has led her to this task.


Developing a Passion for Science—and Encountering Roadblocks

When we spoke, Murray was at her home in Santa Barbara. Her Zoom background was set to display an artistic rendering of the jellyfish life cycle against an aquamarine field. The image, she explained, was from a hand-painted plate made by German scientists in the ‘50s—a gift from Mary Silver, who advised her master’s thesis at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“I had mentors who became part of my family,” she says, describing her studies at Santa Cruz, where she went as an undergrad and kept studying until she had finished her PhD in Ocean Science. She was particularly close with both Silver and her PhD advisor, John Pearse. “They became part of my life, my network of support and inspiration. They were amazing human beings and incredible scholars.” Her mentors were key in developing her abilities as a scientist—and also in navigating a field that could often treat women with both implicit and explicit sexism. In particular, her master’s thesis advisor, Mary Silver, gave her a model for succeeding as a female scientist.

While she was studying with Silver, Murray got a prestigious fellowship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)—one of the premier centers for oceanographic research in the whole world. But the work turned out to be more frustrating and remote than she expected. Sometimes unable to travel on the collection cruises due to lack of space, instead she submitted requests and, as she explains it, “I would wait on the shore for them to come back after time at sea.” When she received her specimens, long since removed from their ocean midwater  habitat, they were not in great shape. Understandably, her observations for natural history information suffered.

Nonetheless, Murray was able to use the data—which accounted for depth, temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen—to associate water mass affinities with different mesopelagic zooplankton. She published her research in an article titled “The habitat of mesopelagic scyphomedusae in Monterey Bay, California,” and to this day it appears to be one of only a few studies to document such fine-scale habitat differences.

When all was said and done, the experience at MBARI led Murray away from this expensive, highly competitive (and often inaccessible) type of research—where one day of a ship’s time cost many thousands of dollars. She wanted to do something more applied and hands-on, where she could go out and collect her own data. So she ended up writing her dissertation on the intertidal substrates: the rocks and sand and man-made jetties that exist between the low- and high-tide lines. These surfaces support so much life. Plus, studying them doesn’t require research vessels and remotely-operated vehicles with pilots and technicians. Murray ended up writing her dissertation on how best to armor the California coastline to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

While completing her PhD, Murray and Pearse also set up LiMPETS (Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students), a participatory citizen-science intertidal and sandy beach monitoring program that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is still running today, with Murray as an advisor. The program’s name refers to limpets, the aquatic snails so abundant in the intertidal.

After graduating, Murray worked for more than five years as a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She loved her work there and was a student favorite, but there was pressure to publish as many scientific articles as possible. (“Publish or perish,” in the popular phrase.) At the time, Murray was the single parent of two young children, and she didn’t have the ability to produce such a volume of research.


Finding a New Type of Student at Antioch

UC Santa Barbara’s loss was Antioch’s gain. Ten years ago, Murray came to teach in the undergraduate studies program at Antioch University Santa Barbara (AUSB). She founded the Environmental Studies concentration within the Liberal Studies program, and it was quickly a hit with students.

The subject matter and students were something of a departure for Murray—and she loved it. Her background and training had been in the physical sciences, with a heavy emphasis on research, data collection, math, and chemistry. Environmental Studies on the other hand, was more of a social science, a broader, interdisciplinary science. “You do research,” Murray explains, “but with an interdisciplinary approach—you’re often measuring changes over time based on human actions, integrating ecology, biology, geology and Earth Systems, and looking at data to inform policy and decision making.”

Murray found that this approach attracted interdisciplinary and systems-thinking students—ones particularly who were interested in considering scientific issues through multiple lenses, including diversity and equity. Many Antioch students wrote on her evaluations that before taking her class “I hated science” or “I was afraid.” For students who had been told by society that they were no good at science, taking a class with Murray helped them realize that science could be for them, too. Often at the end of their evaluations students wrote something like, “Now I want to study environmental science.”

Environmental studies and sustainability is our future, explains Murray: “We certainly need the scientists who are doing the data collection, modeling,  finding and documenting patterns and rates of change across various habitats. We need that.” At the same time, there’s a large and increasing role for people trained to understand both the underlying science and the issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion that arise whenever science meets policy, economics, public health, and global studies. As Murray says, “With the growing challenge of climate change in particular, the world needs people who can translate science into ethical action. People who can problem solve and collaborate.”


Exploring the Needs of the World

In 2017-18, Murray did something that many dream of doing but few actually make the leap into: she spent a whole year living, traveling, and working abroad. For years she has been working with Indigenous groups to help preserve global Indigenous cultures and habitats, from joining with Maya people in Tulum for ocean conversation to working with members of the Monpa Community in Bhutan to preserve medicinal plant knowledge and increase climate change resiliency. But in 2017, with her two young sons in tow, Murray traveled through India, Thailand, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands. The centerpiece of the trips were two longer stays: five  months as a visiting professor in Costa Rica, and six months as a visiting professor at Royal Thimphu College in Bhutan, where she led another Antioch study abroad program. (Read our 2018 article for more details about Murray’s travels abroad.)

The whole experience was transformative, and it offered Murray a singular opportunity to explore the needs of people across the world. Murray explains that with “every single guide, every boat captain, every person that I talked to along the way, I [asked] ‘Did you go to school? Where? What kind of degree do you have? What kind of degree do you want? What kind of future do you dream of?’” What she found was that no matter where she went there were so many people working in conservation, eco-tourism, restoration, and other environmental fields. But they often had never had the chance to finish college. While these people had tremendous on-the-ground and Indigenous knowledge, they also desired to finish their undergraduate degrees, to make the world a better place, and to acquire skills to advocate for their ecosystems, urban and rural.


Founding a New Degree Program

There is a direct connection from her year spent teaching and learning abroad to Murray’s work now as the founding director of Antioch’s new Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies, Sustainability, and Sciences program (ES3). This program, which is open to those who already have some college credits and now want to complete their degree, is set up to be accessible to students anywhere in the world, so long as they have an internet connection.

“Once I lived abroad, I realized how inaccessible education is for so many people globally,” says Murray. Of those people—guides, translators, business owners, farmers, coffee growers, naturalists—who Murray spoke with across the world, few had the financial resources or free time to leave their homes and study for a degree. But online study opens possibilities for so many. As Murray explains, “This degree that we’ve created is relevant to all people across the various environmental industries who would like to be able to finish their undergraduate degree and do something that has a positive impact. Plus, many can make more money in their current professions with a completed BS degree, especially as more opportunities become available.”

Just as key, the students across the United States who might benefit most from completing a bachelors and working in an environmental studies field are often in a similar situation: unable to leave the families and communities in which they live. Says Murray, “The students we hope to attract with this degree are ones who can’t move, uproot their families, quit their jobs, and leave their communities. We want them to stay in their communities with their support networks and finish their BS degree in the field that matters most today—finding environmental solutions.”  For these people, too, an online program offers clear benefits.

Murray, however, was originally a skeptic about online education. She had trouble seeing how the close, nurturing type of teaching she finds most rewarding could translate to the virtual classroom. But with her travels abroad and then the COVID-19 pandemic, Murray learned that it was entirely possible to create wonderful classrooms online. “I realized that with webinars, with forum discussions, the way that you design your class, putting out little videos every week or twice a week—you can create a sense of community and camaraderie,” she explains. “You have students post videos instead of words. And then you start associating a name with a face. There are these little ways that you can create community in an online program and make magic happen. The students also get to learn from each other, about each other’s experiences, communities and global environmental issues. And we all get to share hope and joy and passion about the diversity of life and our changing climate.”

Just because students are scattered across the globe doesn’t mean that all learning will happen with a computer. Students will be encouraged to engage in research and activism in their local environment and communities. And three times every year the program will arrange for optional in-person field study electives. In these classes, students will have the chance to engage in activities like attending and presenting at environmental conferences, doing justice and advocacy work with community-based organizations, and engaging in project-based learning and conservation work dealing with the effects of climate change or cultural preservation.

Murray thinks that the broad scope and the deep accessibility of this degree will make it a transformative experience for students. “There’s so many skills that you have to have to do this kind of work in the future: creativity, culturally-responsive, leadership, communicative, collaborative” she says. “This is our goal: to make a positive impact  in the environment by empowering people, teaching them how to communicate effectively, how to effectively create change, how to write the letters, how to advocate, how to show up in the courtroom, how to make the statements—how to use their own passion for good.” The world needs creative and collaborative leaders, scientists, policy-makers, advocates, and citizens. By launching this degree, Antioch is offering a new way for students to become empowered change-makers.

For Murray, the power of education to transform and empower is evident both in the path that’s brought her here and in how she pays it forward. Her love of nature may have begun when she was a brave girl bringing lost sea creatures back to their watery homes, but the desire to defend nature has never left her. It’s her ambition, scale, and skill that have grown. All of this leads to the big work of launching the ES3 program. This is how she describes its mission: “Our goal is to graduate visionary, effective leaders who will achieve environmental victories for a just and thriving world.”



Find more information about the ES3 program and register for an information session at its program page.

Dawn Murray will be leading a free virtual visit to Bhutan on Monday, March 29th. Titled “A Virtual Visit of Monpa Land: An up-close look at the Indigenous People of Bhutan,” Murray will be presenting with her colleague Dr. Seeta Giri. Sign up to attend at this link.