For Scholar alum Melissa Sevigny, undergraduate experiences set foundation for writing career

July 13, 2016

By Matt Ellsworth

SevignyMelissa Sevigny, a lover of science, writing, and the Southwest, has combined her knowledge and passions to publish two books this year.

The Class of 2005 Flinn Scholar and Tucson native authored the books Under Desert Skies: How Tucson Mapped the Way to the Moon and Planets and Mythical River, which respectively tell the stories of the University of Arizona’s study of space, and the history of water use in the Southwest.

Sevigny, a reporter for KNAU in Flagstaff, did not envision herself producing literature and radio news stories when she entered University of Arizona more than a decade ago on the Flinn Scholarship.

“Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be a scientist,” Sevigny says. “I came in as an environmental-science major and I enjoyed it, but something about writing kept tugging at me. I thought of writing as a hobby and have written poetry since I was a kid, but I didn’t have in mind it would be my career.”

But a shift occurred during her time as a Flinn Scholar. Her graduate study in a Master of Fine Arts program further taught her about writing and the environment, and she was on her path to today’s success.

A published author

Sevigny grew up on the outskirts of Tucson on 4 acres of desert with beautiful dark skies. She said she ran wild all over it and would splash around in the water after a monsoon. These formative years helped set the stage for her later work.

Under Desert Skies: How Tucson Mapped the Way to the Moon and Planets, which was published in February by University of Arizona Press, provides a history of UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. One of the few institutions to study the solar system, and specifically the moon, when it opened in 1960, it became critical in the Space Race and historical milestones such as the first photographs of the moon’s surface and the first man to walk on the moon. And with the Phoenix Mars Mission that launched in 2007, UA became the first public university to run a NASA mission.

Sevigny was able to conduct between 50 and 60 interviews over the four years that she worked at the on-campus lab, an opportunity she seized during her senior year of high school. The interview collection became her honors thesis, but it wasn’t until she was in graduate school at Iowa State University that she decided to revise and expand her work for a broader audience, focusing not just on the institution’s history but also on the rise of planetary science.

Mythical River, which was published in March by University of Iowa Press, is a book about water in the Southwest. It uses the Buenaventura River, which was on maps for about 75 years beginning in the 1770s, yet never existed, as a metaphor. Maps from the era showed the river traveling from the Great Salt Lake west between the Sierra Nevada mountains and into San Francisco Bay.

“I thought it was a beautiful metaphor about how we deal with water in the West,” Sevigny says. “We settled the West with the idea that we could have as much water as we want … but we need to think about ethical ways of living in the desert.”

Sevigny was the 2015 winner of the Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers Award for Mythical River. In addition to receiving a $3,000 grant to support her research and travel, she was invited to a Bluff, Utah arts festival to read from her book.

Radio reporting

In addition to her books, Sevigny combines her love of writing, science, and the environment as a reporter for KNAU public radio in Flagstaff, covering science and technology throughout northern Arizona.

Despite working briefly as a citizen columnist for the Tucson Citizen shortly before its closure, Sevigny did not have any reporting experience before joining KNAU. She had never done radio, but KNAU was impressed with a clip of her reading Mythical River and her storytelling ability.

Sevigny says she’s thrilled she landed the job, which enables her to tell science stories in a new format, where pieces are shorter than she is used to, complicated words are avoided, and she must listen for sounds to include in the background.

She draws stories from research undertaken at Northern Arizona University, Lowell Observatory, the U.S. Geological Society, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute North, but also seeks stories from the community.

“It’s been a lot of fun. I get to talk to really cool people and hike around with scientists and interview in the field and have a great time,” Sevigny says.

The Flinn Scholarship

Sevigny was a 2005 graduate from Pueblo Magnet High School in Tucson. Like many Flinn Scholars through the years, she turned down offers from out-of-state colleges, including Harvard University, to accept the Flinn Scholarship.

In high school, Sevigny completed a science-fair project about Mars and attended an astronomy camp in Hawaii. The science project was seen by a Lunar and Planetary Lab scientist, and Sevigny was offered a job in the lab during her senior year of high school.

As a Flinn Scholar at UA, Sevigny says she was provided opportunities that not only were exciting at the time, but proved to have long-term benefits.

The Flinn Scholarship provided the funds for a summer program in Costa Rica and Guatemala where she could accompany a water scientist from South Africa who was ending her visit in Tucson, an encounter Sevigny writes about in Mythical River.

“She changed the water laws in South Africa … to protect rivers,” Sevigny says. “It was a two-week trip with her, but that planted the seed of the book. It was kind of an ‘a-ha’ moment for me when I realized we didn’t have to manage water in the Southwest like we’ve been managing it.”

She later had the opportunity to work on the Phoenix Mars Mission as an education and public-outreach coordinator, an opportunity Sevigny realizes would never have happened if she left the state. She also worked at UA’s Water Resources Research Center.

Before her senior year, she spent a summer in Galway, Ireland, taking a creative-writing course.

Sevigny says her travel experiences would not have occurred without the Flinn Scholarship and she loved the amazing community of Scholars and being around people like her.

She graduated from UA in 2010 with degrees in environmental science and creative writing. In 2013, she completed Iowa State’s unusual graduate writing program, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Environment. During graduate school, she also worked at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Sevigny says she is happy to be back near family in Arizona, where she was raised, studied, and is now sharing her knowledge through the printed and spoken word.