Rice senior chooses the rocky road

Owlchemy leader LaComb wins local, national honors en route to Earth science studies at Stanford

Often students will have a life-changing experience during their college years. Rice University senior Michelle LaComb had a life-changing-back experience.

LaComb graduates next month with degrees in both chemistry and Earth science and a batch of awards as she heads to Stanford University to pursue a doctorate. She was chosen by Stanford from incoming students in her department, Geological and Environmental Sciences, to receive a three-year Graduate Fellowship in Science and Engineering and has just earned a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, announced this week.

'I was the kid who had the rock and mineral collection,' said Michelle LaComb, who will pursue a doctorate in geology at Stanford. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

On top of that, she is this year’s Rice winner of the Houston Geological Society’s Outstanding Student Award.

These are just rewards for her dedicated pursuit of a science education to match those her parents received at Rice. But she didn’t expect until late in the game that her future would be in geology.

As a child, rocks were her passion. “I was the kid who had the rock and mineral collection and went to state competitions. I could list all the minerals off the top of my head,” she said. “But it was a hobby. I never really considered it as a career.”

At Rice, LaComb made her first marks in chemistry, working to incorporate gadonanotubes into bacteria in the lab of Professor Lon Wilson, as a teaching assistant and as founder of the revived student outreach organization Owlchemy. But things changed when, as a junior, the San Francisco native took an Earth chemistry class taught by Cin-Ty Lee, a professor of Earth science.

“I took the class as a general requirement,” LaComb said. “I thought, ‘OK, this is similar enough to chemistry that I can do this.’ And I loved it. I realized I had the option of making a career out of rocks and minerals, taking something I love and doing it for the rest of my life. I ran with that, and I have yet to find a class in the Earth Science Department that I don’t like.”

“Michelle is one of the best students I’ve seen in a decade,” Lee said. “She always had a good geologic intuition which, combined with her chemistry background, makes her unique. What was clear to me was that she always seemed to understand and appreciate even the more difficult concepts in our classes.”

LaComb’s legacy at Rice seems secure with the ongoing success of Owlchemy, through which dozens of students – and not necessarily chemistry majors – mentor their peers, teach in local elementary, middle and high schools and put on demonstrations at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

“Both my parents are scientists, so when I was that curious kid and asked questions, they had answers,” she said. “They encouraged questions. Some kids aren’t brought up in that environment. We’re trying to let them know that if they’re curious about the world, there are plenty of ways to explore that curiosity.”

Like her dad, Lloyd LaComb Jr. ’82, she is a Baker resident. Her mom, Erin (Flaherty) LaComb ’83, lived at Brown. Both are scientists (Lloyd a physics professor at the University of Arizona, Erin a mathematician and Lockheed Martin retiree) and clearly communicated their love of science to their daughter.

Her goal is to master the art of communication so she can pass her love of science to the next generation. While researching the fate of silicates found deep in the Earth, where they’re subject to high pressures and temperatures, she will also volunteer with Stanford outreach groups.

“There are so many great scientists,” LaComb said. “Brilliant minds, but when someone asks them what they do, it’s hard (for them) to explain it in such a way that other people are interested.

“Of course, there are a few exceptions. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example,” she said. “I’m very excited that he’s coming to Rice (as 2013 commencement speaker). He’s someone I’ve always looked up to because he’s brilliant and can take what he’s so passionate about and explain it to other people in a way that gets them passionate, too.

“That’s what I want for my life. There are so many things I’m passionate about, but I don’t think they mean as much if I can’t share them with others.”

LaComb is confident that Owlchemy will carry on the work she started at Rice. “I didn’t want this to be a club that was only working for four years,” she said. “Even though it was kind of my baby, it doesn’t really mean much if it’s only here while I’m here.”





About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.