Meet FLC Water Alum Prof. Melissa Clutter!
By: Benjamin Brewer, FLC Class of 2022, Philosophy
Advanced Degrees: University of Arizona MS, Soil Water & Environmental Science 2016, PhD Hydrology 2019
Current Position: Assistant Professor of Geosciences, Fort Lewis College
Tribal Affiliation: Cherokee Nation
- Melissa Clutter Worked for Chesapeake Energy Corporation before pursuing her graduate degree.
- Her grandparents grew up in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (Cherokee Nation).
- Dr. Clutter is currently writing a hydrology textbook.
"When I’m not eating my breakfast and grading pre-assignments, I’m eating my breakfast and writing a textbook."
For Melissa Clutter, assistant professor of Geosciences, water is not just something that comes out of the tap—it is life itself. Like many who live in the arid southwest, Clutter recognizes its power and importance.
“It’s just so practical. It’s something that every human needs, every animal needs, every plant needs—so it’s very relevant,” Clutter says. “There’s so much opportunity to do interesting things in this field that are useful. I think I’m such a practical person that it’s hard for me to do research that isn’t relevant to someone or something.”
As a Fort Lewis College alumna, Clutter (Geology, ‘11) has worked tirelessly in the field of hydrology to make empirical research relevant, community-focused, and practical. Indeed, water is extremely relevant to life in the southwest. For some time now, the Four Corners region has been experiencing a drought that produces more than just forest fires in the summer.
“Our reservoirs will be at an all-time low this year,” says Clutter. “That means less water for hydroelectric power, irrigation, food production, and municipal water use. It will all trickle down from the drought.”
Although Clutter currently works on the front lines of water issues in the southwest, her story began back east in Oklahoma. Clutter is from Tulsa, and is — like many students attending FLC — a tribal member of the Cherokee Nation. She decided to attend Fort Lewis College for the Native American tuition waiver — and quickly fell in love with the school, its landscape, and wealth of opportunities for outdoor recreation.
As an undergraduate student, Clutter switched majors multiple times before landing in the Geology program. She noted that the opportunities to study water at FLC were not as numerous in 2007 as they are today.
“I was hired as the first geology professor specializing in hydrology, but when I was completing my undergraduate degree here there wasn’t much for water [studies],” Clutter said. “When I was a student here at Fort Lewis, I knew that I was interested in water. So, I centered my senior thesis around that area of study. That… plus Engineers Without Borders (now Village Aid Project) definitely sparked my interest.”
During her time at FLC, Clutter became interested in becoming a professor herself.
“I thought my professors had the coolest job in the world, taking students out in the field -- and they seemed really happy,” Clutter recalled. “In my senior year of school I asked one of my professors ‘What does it take to be a professor at Fort Lewis College?’ and they told me ‘Well, you need to get a PhD.’ So, I told them ‘Okay, I’ll go do that and come back.’”
Clutter went on to work for Chesapeake Energy Corporation for three years after graduating from FLC. She said she felt a calling to teach, so she attended the University of Arizona to get her master’s in Soil Water & Environmental Science. She then continued her post-graduate work, seeking a Doctorate in Hydrology. During work on her Ph.D., she was told of a job opening at FLC.
“I was collecting data in Japan [for my Ph.D. research], and I got an email from Fort Lewis College letting me know there would be a job opening in the next year,” Clutter said.
Clutter was torn. Her research topic would not allow for her to get her Ph.D. by the time the job opened. So, either she could finish her research and miss the window of opportunity, or she could switch her research focus and get her Ph.D. by the time the job opened.
“I had to switch my entire research topic to get the job, and most people told me that was crazy,” Clutter noted. “It was definitely a gamble, but it paid off. I got my dream job.”
In 2019, Clutter brought her skills and expertise back to FLC — working with students in the lab and in the field. For FLC students looking to solve the Southwest water crisis, Clutter says it’s important for students to narrow down their interests and find their specific niche. She points to areas like wastewater treatment that offer an interesting, albeit dirty, way to study water.
“Waste water treatment is disgusting but it’s so exciting,” says Clutter. “A lot of people in the Southwest are realizing the potential of wastewater by injecting it back into aquifers and storing it or using it for irrigation,” said Clutter. “You’ve got to be open to opportunities you may not expect. Don’t get so stuck that you miss something new, like wastewater.”