From small-town girl to scientist studying volcanic eruptions in new window

Melissa Chambers and Dr. Vali Memeti

December 18, 2018

For most of my life, I lived in a small, rural town in New Jersey. I’ve always been shy, with many insecurities and anxieties about my future. I made the decision to push my limits and move to California to study igneous rocks in Yosemite National Park with Valbone Memeti, assistant professor of geological sciences at Cal State Fullerton.

Memeti studies volcanic plumbing systems to better understand future volcanic eruptions. My research focuses on the size and interconnectivity of magma chambers to provide a clearer understanding of the size of volcanic eruptions. I’m tracking the possible movement of megacrystic (very large) K-feldspar minerals through different plutonic rock units using geochemistry and geochronology (age dating of rocks). Determining what units these K-feldspars grew in and traveled through will help us figure out which magma chambers were connected at a given time and, therefore, how big magma chambers can get.

Since moving to California to become a graduate student in geology about a year ago, I have been overwhelmed with opportunities to become a better scientist and grow as a person. Working on my thesis project has provided me with the opportunity to travel to beautiful places all over the country, including Yosemite National Park, to collect my geochemical and geochronological data. I’ve also had the chance to meet professors in geologic disciplines who have shared their knowledge and innovative lab techniques with me.

One of my first experiences was at U.C.L.A., where I won the trust of the lab manager by helping him fix an expensive machine, called a carbon coater, which is used when analyzing rocks with an electron microprobe. It took a lot of fiddling, but once we fixed it, he shook my hand and trusted me enough to use the equipment by myself. I also completed research at Texas Tech University, where I collected more in-depth geochemical data than at U.C.L.A.

As a C.S.U.F. student I’ve also had opportunities to conduct summer research, including my work at Princeton University, where my project focused on finding the age of my K-feldspar minerals to determine how long the minerals were growing. In addition to doing lab work, I attended lectures from visiting geologists.

Doing fieldwork in Yosemite National Park has been a highlight of my graduate work. With fellow student researchers and Assistant Professor Memeti, we hiked 50-plus miles into remote areas of Yosemite to collect rock samples needed to investigate these specific magma chambers.

The backpacking trips tested my emotional, mental and physical abilities. I never knew how strong I was or how much I was able to accomplish until then. When I wasn’t overwhelmed with the responsibilities and stress of being in the wilderness, I found peace. Hiking the passes of the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails and observing gorgeous views with four llamas (to hold our heavy rock samples) made me realize that sometimes you have to stop and look around. You have to be grateful for where you came from, but also proud of how far you’ve come.

Last year, I also presented my research at the annual Geological Society of America meeting in Seattle, where geologists of all backgrounds and experiences gather to discuss and share research. This was an excellent chance to make connections, network and look for future graduate schools and career path endeavors. I also attended the G.S.A. meeting in November, in Indianapolis and gave a professional talk about my research, which is something I would never have considered doing last year.

As I move closer to completing my studies and graduating from Cal State Fullerton in the spring, I’m looking forward to what new doors and career paths will open for me because of my research experiences at C.S.U.F. and beyond. Along the way, I’ve met welcoming and brilliant professors and researchers who I hope to interact with in the long-term. Thanks to C.S.U.F., Memeti and my research project in volcanic plumbing systems, this small-town girl has become an independent and confident scientist, ready for whatever new opportunities lie ahead.

Melissa Chambers is from Hackettstown, N.J., where she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Montclair State University. She is pursuing a master’s degree in geology at C.S.U.F. After earning her graduate degree, she hopes to pursue a teaching and research career at the community college level or work as a lab manager. She enjoys hiking, exploring national parks and photography.