Melissa DeRaad sparkles with enthusiasm when she talks about her undergraduate experience, professors and mentors, her plans for a Ph.D. degree, and her upcoming graduation. DeRaad will walk across the stage in December to receive her Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from The University of New Mexico.
DeRaad didn’t take the road to a university degree straight from high school. Born in Anaheim, Calif., she grew up as the child of blue-collar parents who lacked college degrees.
“My parents believed in the value of hard work and practical skills but didn’t feel that a college degree was absolutely necessary to truly unlock one's potential.”
After completing high school, DeRaad found herself torn between a career in computer engineering and scientific research. She chose computer engineering, attended a technical school where she excelled and started a career but over time, she found something lacking.
“Computer engineering taught me how to think critically, lead groups, mentor, and work to a deadline. Although my early years in this field allowed me to gain valuable technical and personal skills, I soon realized that the absence of intellectually stimulating challenges hindered my personal and professional growth. In time, my desire for deeper engagement and more profound problem-solving brought about the recognition that my thirst for knowledge and my innate curiosity were better suited for a scientific journey, leading me to pursue a second career as a scientist.”
Once the decision was made to find a new path, DeRaad looked at her options, which included Massachusetts and California but finally decided to head to New Mexico.
“I decided that it made sense to pursue my B.S. and Ph.D. in New Mexico where the labs that I want to work are located, plus I have always loved New Mexico and was interested in settling there permanently. So, I left most everything behind in Massachusetts and moved to New Mexico to start a new life and a new journey.”
DeRaad believes her past career gave her an advantage when it came to going to a university.
“This transition is a continuation of my past. I am resolute in my conviction that the critical thinking, programming, data analysis, and database skills honed during my time as a computer engineer will synergize with my aspirations in scientific exploration. Interdisciplinary collaboration and cutting-edge research resonate deeply with my goals. My non-traditional background provides a unique perspective that can enrich the discourse within my Ph.D. program, which further fuels my eagerness to contribute to the academic and scientific community.”
As an undergraduate, DeRaad accumulated a string of accolades. She was a McNair Scholar, Goldwater Scholar, ASSURE Fellow, Lane Scholar, and holds a 4.1 GPA. Her main research interests are in Materials and Nano Science, including Photochemistry, Semiconductors, Quantum Dots, and Quantum Effects. Besides being a full-time student, she works as a teaching assistant in the Chemistry department.
Many people helped her along the way, DeRaad said, citing some of them.
Friends John and Tracy Cobuzzi of Los Alamos were her cheerleaders throughout the journey and opened their home to her during the COVID 19 shutdown.
Professor Elizabeth Dolan at Central New Mexico Community College helped DeRaad see how much she loved Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics.
“She made me realize that a Ph.D. is not ‘in’ a topic. You don’t get a Ph.D. in Physics. It’s a Ph.D. in science and science is a big river that we arbitrarily break up into topics and act as though they are separate entities, which is not true and is quite myopic. Science is interdisciplinary and the topics are heavily entwined.”
Rajani Thapa Magar was the graduate student DeRaad was assigned to when she joined Professor Jeffrey Rack’s Red lab.
“Under her tutelage, I got my feet wet as a researcher and found that despite research being hard, I enjoy research and I was able to confirm that I want to pursue science and research as my next career.”
DeRaad expressed major gratitude to Rack of the UNM Chemistry department, who has been her Primary Investigator.
“Being in his lab and having him as an advisor has had a huge impact on who I am today. I am so thankful for his guidance and support. He has assisted me with the formulation of materials and has written letters of recommendation in support of me in the many scholarship competitions that I have been a part of and won. The most notable was the Goldwater Scholarship competition which he suggested I compete in… When I found out I had been chosen, I just stood there silently in amazement. Without him and the assistance he gave me, I would not have competed, nor would I have been chosen. I have learned so much from him.”
With commencement only a few weeks away, DeRaad reflected on her journey.
“It feels so surreal to finally be here. It has always been that one day I will graduate with my B.S. in Chemistry and one day I’ll graduate with my Ph.D. in Nanoscience and one day I’ll be a scientist. ‘One day I’ll graduate with my B.S. in Chemistry’ has happily snuck up on me and I expect the other two will do the same. I am so very happy, blessed, and thankful.”
A Ph.D. degree is the next step for DeRaad. She had other options but has decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Nanoscience at UNM and has chosen Professor of Chemistry Terefe Habteyes as her Primary Investigator.
“I really love UNM and am proud to be a Lobo. It is a fantastic R1 research university. I’ve made new friends, enjoyed my coursework − except exams of course − and have made connections that will last a lifetime. I’ve also enjoyed working as a TA in the Chemistry department and it’s rewarding to help my peers on their journey. I am so glad that I decided to be courageous and go back to school and that I chose UNM as the place to do that.”