Alumni Spotlight Archive
Spotlight on: Erica Newland (SCATS 1998)
Erica Newland (SCATS 1998) graduated from Yale University in 2008 with a BS in applied mathematics. She was a senior policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology for three years before attending Yale Law School, during which she worked for the National Security Division at the Department for Justice and the Senate Judiciary Committee. She received her J.D. in 2015 and went on to serve as a law clerk for the Hon. Merrick Garland on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and as an attorney-adviser at the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice. She now works as counsel for Protect Democracy, a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting attacks, from at home and abroad, on our right to free, fair, and fully informed self-government.”
What do you remember about SCATS?
It was the longest I'd been away from home, and I went with my very best friend, who ended up moving away the following summer, so it’s one of my last memories of us spending a lot of time together. It's very special to me for that reason, as well as others. I took a class in genetics which I remember the most clearly, and a class on acting with Julie Roberts. In all of my classes, it was wonderful to be with other kids my age who were also interested in spending time learning new things. The genetics class was the first time I was introduced to Punnett squares and the basics of genetics — a type of science education that I hadn't gotten at school to that point. I came back having learned a lot. It was also an introduction to living in dorms and being at a cafeteria, and that was exciting for me and also made me a lot more comfortable at subsequent camps and, ultimately, college.
You grew up in Auburn, AL. What were your experiences like going through school as a gifted student?
In my school system, there were not a lot of offerings for academically-inclined kids until tenth grade. I was bored a lot. One of the things I really enjoyed at SCATS was that learning was one of the purposes of being there, and the other campers were also curious. I enjoyed that type of engagement.
Was it a culture shock for you to go to school in the northeast?
It wasn't so much the northeast that was a culture shock — I had been looking forward to that. But in college, I did feel some envy toward students for whom the types of enrichment experiences that I had at SCATS were the rule rather than the exception. It’s part of why I remain so grateful for programs like SCATS: summer programs like the ones at WKU offered a special type of enrichment that can be especially hard to find in certain areas of the country.
Tell me a little bit about your professional path. You majored in applied math but also studied Chinese, and then you worked at The Center for Democracy and Technology, which protects online civil liberties and human rights. Then you went to law school, worked for the Department of Justice, and now work at Protect Democracy. How did you get from point to point?
It makes more sense than it may look like on paper! I studied applied math at Yale and the field didn’t play to my strengths. But I stuck with it — I’m stubborn like that — and ended up doing some computer science work as well. Through that work, I had the chance to spend time at Microsoft Research in Beijing over one summer. Yale had a good Chinese language program, so I then decided to use the opportunity to learn Chinese and, following graduation, I was able to study Mandarin in China on a Richard U. Light Fellowship.
When I was there studying Chinese, I spent a lot of time thinking about access to information because so many of the websites I liked to use were blocked. I started learning about China’s censorship mechanism. I discovered there was this whole field of tech policy that I hadn't known existed, and I was really interested in it — how government regulation affects the availability of information and our ability to self-govern. That's how I landed at the Center for Democracy and Technology. I loved my job — I was around a lot of awesome lawyers whom I really respected and who were working to make the world a better place, and so I decided to go to law school.
In August of 2016, after law school and clerking, I joined the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice, where the theme of how our democracy handles technology is very much present in some of the office’s work. Soon, though, a lot changed there — and I left in November 2018. I decided that what I felt was most useful was to go work on some of these rule-of-law and democracy issues that I'm working on at Protect Democracy.
Tell me what you see your role to be at Protect Democracy and what you hope you can accomplish.
The organization's mission is to keep our government from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. What I love about the organization — it's only two years old — is the integrated advocacy approach. We are kind of a Swiss Army knife of an organization. We do litigation to protect rule of law values, but we're also up on Capitol Hill lobbying, we're talking to candidates for office, we're writing op-eds, and we’re engaging with media, on the theory that change is difficult to make, so to make any change, you have to use all levers available. I'm doing a little bit of all-of-the-above, and it's an opportunity to be creative and not be limited to one tactic or one set of tools. It’s fulfilling.
Spotlight on: Melissa Scruggs (VAMPY 1998-2001)
Melissa Scruggs has achieved the dream of many a science-minded gifted student: she studies volcanoes. A Ph.D. candidate in geology with an emphasis on magma dynamics and petrochemistry at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) where she is part of the Magma Dynamics Group at the UCSB Department of Earth Sciences. She has published in American Mineralogist and the Encyclopedia of Geochemistry, and presented at the Goldschmidt International Conference in Geochemistry and the American Geophysical Union’s Annual Fall Meeting. She received an MS in geology with an emphasis on volcanology from California State University, Fresno, and a BS in geology from University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Melissa also achieved internet fame last January, when she tweeted (as @VolcanoDoc) about exacting revenge on her hard-partying neighbors who rolled “a giant sandstone boulder” in front of her car. The young men had overlooked the fact the she was “a tiny #geologist who has access to a VERY loud auto-chipper at 7:30 am,” and Melissa posted four pictures of her dismantling the rock in a most effective and noisy fashion. The post went viral, receiving 53.5 thousand likes.
We spoke with Melissa this fall about her time at VAMPY, her path to becoming a volcanologist, and how her lifelong curiosity occasionally allows her to destroy stuff in the name of science.
What was school was like for you as a kid?
I was really bored and frustrated. I went to Lincoln College Prep in Kansas City, Missouri, for middle school. It's one of the best schools in the state — the base classes are AP, and upper classes are IB — and I was still just bored. Everything was easy, and I hated it.
What do you remember about VAMPY?
I remember VAMPY quite vividly. I loved it. VAMPY felt more like a family than my family. I still talk to some of the people that I met my first year. They’re some of my best friends, and even though they live across the country, we send each other Christmas cards, talk, and Skype.
I took Physics my first year. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I struggled a bit with the math because math is hard for me, but I loved being able to drop stuff off the top of the building. That seems to be a recurring theme for me — I like when I get to drop things off the tops of buildings or blow things up. VAMPY contributed to me realizing that being a scientist was a thing. I had watched Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman's World, but they were on TV — I never thought that that could be real.
Later I took Genetics, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and Medieval Literature. Whatever I happened to be into at the time, I obsessed over it. My dad says I'd do that even as a little kid — I'd find whatever I was interested in and never stop until I could get to the bottom of things. They found it incredibly annoying — VAMPY was their solution because they got rid of me for a month!
How did your academic interests progress?
I started getting into science in about fourth or fifth grade. In high school, I took chemistry. I had a great teacher, and she was so excited about it — her personality really drew me to that class. I took chemistry for two and a half years.
I didn't initially graduate high school — I dropped out when I was a senior because I was pregnant. I also still hated school — I showed up to take tests and made As on them, but on report cards I had Fs because of my attendance. I got my GED and worked as a legal secretary. I liked law, so I decided to be a paralegal. I worked full time during the day and went to school part time at night, and I got my Associate degree in paralegal studies.
Then I transferred to the University of Missouri–Kansas City. I thought science was really cool, but I wanted to be a lawyer, so I wanted to combine the two. There was an environmental studies degree in the Department of Urban and Environmental Geosciences. It had a lot of policy-oriented classes, so I decided to major in environmental science and minor in the pre-law track. I would get to do law, but I would get to enjoy science at the same time.
The major required taking environmental science and a couple geology classes. Then I took mineralogy, and they got me with the shiny minerals. That did it: I decided to change to geology. I took a class called the Archeology of Ancient Disasters. The archeologist who taught it, Dr. L. Mark Raab, passed away just this summer — he was really cool. He actually did his PhD dissertation on the Channel Islands offshore here in Santa Barbara, so it's a weird, full circle sort of thing.
The course was cross-listed in geology and classics and was taught by Dr. Raab and by Dr. Tina Niemi, a sedimentologist. The course was awesome because we got to see how geologic events affected the course of human history — like the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. Most of the churches were destroyed, but the red light district fared fairly well. It was because of the underlying lithology (what rock type is underneath the ground) and how there were different rock types within the city — but people in the area started to question religion — why would God destroy these churches while the red light districts survived? Topics like that got me interested in natural hazards. And like I said before, I always liked throwing things off of buildings
I decided that I wanted to be a volcanologist when Dr. Raab showed a video of a volcanologist in a silver suit next to a lava lake. I said, “How do I get to do that?” They told me I had to get a PhD in volcanology.
What have you researched in your graduate studies?
For my master's degree, I worked on a volcano called Chaos Crags in Lassen Peak, in Northern California. I collected rock samples, crushed them up, melted them — fused them into glass — and then popped them in an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, which measures the chemical composition of the rock as a whole. I also measured the chemistry of the individual minerals in the rock, so I could compare the two. From that information, I reconstructed the pressures and temperatures (P-T) that the different minerals in the magma crystallized at, before the volcano erupted. From those P-T estimates, I realized that after two different types of magma had mixed, there had to have been ~200 °C of cooling before the volcano erupted. Ultimately, if it wasn't for magma mixing, the eruption wouldn't have happened, but it probably didn’t happen right away.
Why are those findings significant?
The whole point of volcanology in my view is to try to mitigate as many disasters as possible. There's no way to predict a volcanic eruption at all — even a single volcano can have a completely different behavior from one eruption to the next — so by reconstructing what happens before an eruption, you can gain a better understanding of that volcano's behaviors. At Chaos Crags, the initial eruption was very explosive, then it lost some gas, and then it had some lava dome growth. Then it had another explosive eruption, and the rest of it was more lava dome growth. By looking at the differences between the individual eruptions, we can recreate what happened. It doesn't help to forecast future eruptions, but it does help to better understand the past behavior of a volcano.
Part of my PhD builds on my master's work. I have additional geochemistry data. Instead of looking at the minerals in the rocks, I looked at the isotopic signature of the rocks as a whole. I was able to find evidence that as the magma comes up from depth into the base of the chamber to mix with the magma that's already there, it's incorporating some of the upper crustal rock around it as it travels upwards.
The other part of my PhD is looking at the Pu`u `O`o eruption at Kilauea on the island of Hawai’i. I use a computer program called the Magma Chamber Simulator — you can look it up at https://mcs.geol.ucsb.edu/. It's a thermodynamically-based (energy- and mass-constrained phase equilibria modeling) computer program that can model what the chemistry of the rocks should look like if certain processes were to happen. I take the actual chemistry of the lava that has erupted and say, “Okay, I know that this is what came out. Now what had to happen underneath the ground in order to get there?” and that's what I model. It takes a long time because I have to model all these different scenarios, and the natural earth has a ton of variables.
I'm working on the Episode 54 eruption, which was in 1997. It was a 23-hour long eruption that occurred just a few months after GPS was first installed in the Pu`u `O`o cone. With GPS, you can calculate the volume of magma that's moved. From using the volumes of magma, where they were located, and the chemistry of the lava that was erupted at the time of the eruption, I was able to figure out that the magma that came in to the system mixed with a pod of leftover magma that was pretty crystalline and had evolved quite a bit. I was able to figure out the composition of that magma, its crystallinity, and its conditions and approximate volume before Episode 54 occurred.
What are your professional goals at this point?
I have officially advanced to PhD candidacy. I’m hoping to defend by the end of the summer. I was selected for the American Geophysical Union conference in December — it's the biggest international geology conference — so I’ll present part of my PhD work there. I really would like to research.
And you've been doing all this as a parent as well?
Yes. My daughter is 16 — she's a great kid. She started taking chemistry this year, and she came home and said, “Mom, I really like chemistry!” and I said, “It's really cool, huh?”
Any final thoughts on VAMPY? Has it had an impact on your life?
Without a doubt. My mom remembers me telling her I liked it better than school because there were people there who were like me. Even though I got to go to a school where the classes were demanding and the people were nice, I still didn't feel I fit in. VAMPY gave me a place to look forward to going to. 24 years later I still talk to some of my friends from camp on a weekly basis. Those are my homies.
My first year — this is how I got roped into this group of friends — there was this rule that we weren't allowed to take the elevators. But there was this thing called the Elevator Record. We crammed 43 people into a 17-person capacity elevator. We went up three feet and got stuck for four hours. We did not make it to class on time.
Things like the dances, mandatory fun, and meeting people from everywhere who were just as into things as I was all helped me so much as a person. VAMPY was such a great experience, and it has really helped me to grow into who I am today.
Spotlight on: Dr. Kirstin Hamblin Squint
Kirstin is an Associate Professor of English at High Point University in High Point, NC. She received her BA in English from Eureka College in 1995, her MA in English with a fiction writing emphasis from Miami University of Ohio in 1998, and her PhD in comparative literature from Louisiana State University in 2008.
Her published works include the 2018 monograph LeAnne Howe at the Intersections of Southern and Native American Literature and the forthcoming Swamp Souths: Literary and Cultural Ecologies, co-edited with Eric Gary Anderson, Taylor Hagood, and Anthony Wilson. Her essay “Kentucky Coming and Going” appeared as a chapter in the 2019 Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll. In 2019-20 she will serve as the the Whichard Visiting Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University,
What was VAMPY like for you?
The first year, I took an expository writing class, and for much of my life my goal has been to be a writer, so that class alone was really helpful. It was the first time I read Faulkner. I wrote a piece about my grandmother, and we did peer reviews with our classmates. I had never had any kind of formal writing training — that class was very powerful for me. I took other interesting classes, but that one was life-changing because of who I am intellectually.
The other thing was that I came from a very poor rural community in Kentucky, neither of my parents went to college, and no one I knew in my family had gone to college. I was meeting children of lawyers and college professors and people who were going to magnet schools in Louisville — people from socio-economic and educational backgrounds that were so different from mine. By becoming friends with those people and realizing the way that I had felt different from my classmates and my community, I didn't feel so isolated anymore.
At what point did you decide you wanted to go to graduate school?
I knew that pretty early on — I remember in seventh or eighth grade, I had this idea I was going to get a PhD, and I thought I was going to do it at Harvard or something — I had no idea. But that's the thing — I met people at VAMPY whose parents had gone to Harvard and who did themselves go to Harvard, so suddenly that was within reach to me, and it was not within reach previously. Again, VAMPY exposed me to a world that I had never been in contact with before.
I discovered as an undergrad that I wanted to be a a fiction writer, so I got into the MA program in English at Miami of Ohio. I wound up moving out to New Mexico and taught in a high school on the Navajo reservation for a year. I learned that I didn't want to be a high school teacher, but I learned that I did love teaching. After I finished my master’s, I started doing community college teaching, and I liked it because I had a lot of first generation students like me. It was work that was meaningful.
How did your research interests develop in graduate school and afterwards?
What really started my research was teaching on the reservation. It opened up my world in terms of seeing and understanding settler colonialism and the relationship of indigenous people to the United States government. I had a growing interest in native writers, and when I was at the community college in Flagstaff, AZ, I created its first Native American literature class. There was a really high number of Native American students who attended, a lot of of Hopi and Navajo students, so that felt like a really important thing to do.
I read Choctaw writer LeAnne Howe’s novel Shell Shaker when I was at LSU. That book moves between the 18th and 20th century in the Choctaw homelands of what became Mississippi, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. I realized when I read it that I could look around Louisiana, and all these places had Choctaw names, like Bogue Chitto and Atchafalaya. It made me think simultaneously about native presence and absence in the southeast.
I wrote a dissertation on 20th and 21st-century Native American writers, called Native Spiritualities as Resistance: Disrupting Colonialism in the Americas. As I was thinking about what my next project would be, I thought about what I had enjoyed the most about the dissertation. I had done an interview with LeAnne Howe in 2008, and it became my first national publication. I thought, “I really want to write more about her” and then realized I wanted to write a book about her — nobody had written one yet. LeAnne Howe at the Intersections of Southern and Native American Literature came out from LSU Press in 2018.
I'm under contract for another book about her — it's an edited collection of essays with the University Press of Mississippi. I also coedited a forthcoming collection called Swamp South: Literary and Cultural Equalities. A lot of things have happened in the last couple of years, and it's been super exciting.
What is it like being someone who is not Native American working in native literary
Having had the experience of living on a reservation, I have an awareness of settler colonialism that a lot of Americans don't have. I'm always aware of my outsiderness, and I try to keep learning from the native scholars I know and whenever I'm in a native community. I never think that I know as much as I can know — I'm always learning and trying to figure out the best way to be an ally.
For example, I just wrote a letter of recommendation for one of my students who is Eastern Band of Cherokee. She's going to do a community health certificate program at Western Carolina because she wants to synthesize western medicine and native healing methodologies and wants to go on to graduate school. I'm so proud of her, and I feel like anytime I have an opportunity to mentor native students, I want to do that.
It sounds like you're leveraging power from your position to help people who don't
have that access, which relates back to when you were younger and you didn't have
access to certain things.
You're right. I taught on the reservation and at Southern University, an HCBU in Baton Rouge, but I didn't understand this until recently. The piece that I wrote for Appalachian Reckoning was about my family in dysfunctionality, how my grandparents came out of the mountains in southeastern Kentucky and their shame about their hillbilly identity. They carried that shame with them and passed it on — we weren't allowed to listen to banjo music because there was this real shame attached to it — “we don't want anybody to think we're hillbillies” — but of course, they couldn't see the extent to which they embodied that anyway. I went to school out of state because I wanted to get away from Kentucky. I had all this shame.
When I was on a panel at the Appalachian Studies Conference in March talking about Appalachian Reckoning, someone asked about Appalachian identity and double consciousness, and it hit me so hard. I've talked about the idea of W.E.B. DuBois’s double consciousness with other ethnic minority communities and when I've taught multiethnic literature, but it never occurred to me that I might also be carrying a form of double consciousness from a hillbilly perspective. For all of my life, I couldn't see the forest for the trees, why I was drawn to these places doing these things. The Appalachian Reckoning piece has been a big moment of me coming to some awareness about my life.
Anything else you want to say about VAMPY?
VAMPY was a transformational experience. It opened up the world in so many ways. It's hard to measure the impact that it had on me.
Spotlight on: Karyn Andrews (SCATS 1986-87)
Karyn is currently in the WKU graduate program in gifted studies, working toward her endorsement. For her practicum, she taught a course at SCATS this the summer.
Where did you grow up?
In LaRue county, in a little town called Buffalo.
How did you find out about SCATS?
My mother was working on her gifted endorsement at the time — she actually taught at SCATS my first year. I took her class — a newspaper class.
What other memories do you have of SCATS?
Going to Opryland — that was fun. I remember making a camera out of an oatmeal box and getting to develop the pictures. There is a drawing that I did in a drawing class still hanging on the wall of my parents’ house.
What career have you pursued?
I work at Mt. Washington Elementary in Bullitt County as the school librarian. I taught band for two years at a Christian school and then want back to graduate school and got my Masters in library. I’m now doing the gifted endorsement toward earning Rank 1 as a teacher.
Why did you decide to do the gifted and talented endorsement?
It’s something I've always wanted to do. I’ve always been a strong advocate for gifted education.
Have there been topics you have covered in your graduate work that have made you reflect
back on yourself as a gifted student?
Definitely. I've learned a lot about myself. I didn’t realize that getting frustrated easily and being very emotional were often tied in with being gifted. I would get irritated with teachers who wanted me to work a problem the way they wanted me to work it out rather than the way I wanted to work it out.
What was it like growing up as a gifted young person?
I was lucky my parents were advocates for me. Once she realized I knew all my letters when I was 19 months old, my mom thought, “Hey, this isn’t normal. We need to figure something out.” She brought me to Western when I was four and had me tested. I was lucky in that I had teachers who challenged me up through third grade. There was no gifted program in my school until I was older, and that was a pull-out, one hour, one day a week program. The superintendent in the district now does a good job with middle and high school students, but with elementary, we’re still getting there.
Has there been any part of the graduate program that you have particularly enjoyed?
I've enjoyed all of it. I’m really enjoying SCATS. This is my first time working with middle school kids, except for when I did student teaching years and years ago, and it has not been as scary as I thought it would be!
Your class is called Book, Books, Books. What are your specific goals?
I want students to have shared with each other books and book series. I want them to come away with a big, long list of new books to read and an appreciation for different genres. Their interests are guiding the direction I take in class. I think it’s working!