Unique Scientist: Melissa Scruggs

Say hello to Melissa Scruggs (She/her)! Melissa is a PhD candidate at the University of California – Santa Barbara and studies volcanic eruptions 🌋!

What kind of scientist are you?
I am a volcanologist, and I try to figure out what happens inside of magma chambers to trigger volcanic eruptions. I use the chemistry of lavas (after the volcano has already erupted), and combine that with thermodynamic computer models to determine the different types of processes (like mixing, crystallization, etc.) that likely contributed to the changes in lava chemistry, and possibly triggered the eruption. I currently TA mineralogy (my favorite subject), optical microscopy, and igneous petrology, and have previously taught Natural Disasters as a Summer Lecturer.

What made you want to become a scientist?
I could give you some long spiel that makes me sound all noble and whatnot, but this is what really happened: I took a VERY cool class in undergrad, Archaeology of Ancient Disasters. It was a cross-disciplinary course between Earth Science & Classics. One day, we started talking about volcanoes (I forget which one). The professor showed us a YouTube video of a volcanologist next to a lava lake, wearing a silver suit. I thought it was the COOLEST thing I had EVER seen in my entire life, so I raised my hand and asked, “How do I get to do THAT?” The professor told me that I would need to go to grad school and get a PhD in volcanology, so here we are. True story.

“[…] so I raised my hand and asked, “How do I get to do THAT?” The professor told me that I would need to go to grad school and get a PhD in volcanology, so here we are.”

Melissa Scruggs

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
Let’s just start out by saying I was not the most well-behaved of children….
My parents had me emancipated at 15, so when I found out I was pregnant at 16, I dropped out of high school to work full-time. I got my GED, went to community college, and transferred to the local 4-year university. During undergrad, I worked full-time during the day and took classes part time at night and online to finish my degree. With the support of an amazing Dept & a lot of hard work, I was able to finish my BS and get into grad school. So, my kiddo and I packed up and headed to California! I obtained my Master’s from Fresno State (which again, could not have been done without the support of friends & a phenomenal advisor), and am now wrapping up my PhD at UCSB.

What makes me a #UniqueScientist? There are a number of TV shows about teen moms, and these shows seem to focus on the more negative aspects of their lives, and VERY much promote unnecessary and non-mentally stimulating drama. I want to be a POSITIVE role model – to show girls that you DON’T have to fit the stereotype of a high school dropout working a dead-end job, just because you got pregnant.

I also want to bring awareness to the academic community about non-traditional students like myself. Many grad student parents have younger children, and most child accommodation policies favor kids <6. Additionally, many meetings are scheduled while school is in session, making it nearly impossible for us to attend conferences and workshops. I really want to be an advocating voice for helping single parent grad students & ECR scientists with school-aged children, because we are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to networking & academic development.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I am a proud regular of independent local coffee shops. Think “Central Perk from Friends” level. In fact, I didn’t get a cell phone until after I was 18. So if you needed to get ahold of me you didn’t call my house – you called Muddy’s, and left a message with the barista.

Before becoming a geologist, I wanted to be an attorney and practice Environmental Law. I actually have an AAS degree in Legal Studies, and have ~10 years experience as a paralegal/legal secretary.

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
With all of my heart, I wish that the public would actually TRUST scientists, and that public figures wouldn’t foment distrust of science. We would be able to make SO MUCH HEADWAY on mitigating the effects of climate change if people would just believe the evidence that is sitting right in front of them!!!

“I want to be a POSITIVE role model – to show girls that you DON’T have to fit the stereotype of a high school dropout working a dead-end job, just because you got pregnant.”

Melissa Scruggs

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
I wouldn’t have been able to be where I am today without the support and inspiration of my undergrad mineralogy prof, Dr. James Murowchick. When the kids had a snow day but I still had class, he never minded if I brought my daughter to class with me. He was always willing to offer advice on how to be a good scientist, a good parent, and a good person. Dr. Murowchick put kindness and fairness first, never made me feel unintelligent, and helped to foster my interest in petrography and petrology. Dr. Murowchick has touched so many student’s lives, and I sincerely doubt I am the only student who feels this way about him!

I was also definitely inspired by Dr. Leslie Hayden (formerly of the USGS at Menlo Park). I first met Leslie when I went to the USGS to do microprobe work for my Master’s Degree. During grad school, I actually had a few professors tell me that I would never, ever get a PhD or a job if I had tattoos or piercings. When I met Leslie, she had both, and pink hair to boot! It really made me realize that those profs had their own prejudices, and that they were completely wrong. Representation really does matter!

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
I’m currently teaching my daughter to drive, and it’s the scariest thing ever. I’m SO proud of her for being a good driver, and for me not having a heart attack!


#WomenInSTEM, #MomsInSTEM

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