Scripps Student Spotlight: Benjamin Gruber

Geology and geochemistry PhD student researching rocks, how volcanoes form, and how continental crust is made on planets other than Earth

Benjamin Gruber is a fourth-year PhD student studying geology and geochemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, he received his undergraduate degree in geology from Washington State University and his master’s in earth science from the University of Alberta in Canada. His current advisor is Scripps geoscientist Emily Chin

This is Ben’s first year receiving funds from the Arthur E. Maxwell Endowed Graduate Fellowship. This fellowship was set up in 2021 in honor of Arthur Maxwell, a proud alumnus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to provide support for graduate students focused in the areas of geological sciences, geophysics, or physical oceanography.  


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Benjamin Gruber: I chose to attend Scripps because it is an exciting place to investigate unique geological processes, and because of the opportunity to collaborate with people from a variety of fields. Outside of academics, the community here was also a big draw for me, as well as the chance to live in San Diego.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

BG: At its most basic level, my research focuses on understanding how rocks are made and how they are affected by faults and melting. This is particularly exciting for me, as I have projects that span from a wide range of rock types to a variety of locations, such as the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is where most of my field excursions take place. My samples are from the Sierra Nevadas, Tonto National Forest and Prescott National Forest in Arizona, and meteorites that were found in Antarctica. I have two projects that are focused on understanding how our continental crust is made and how certain volcanoes form. These projects involve a lot of time hiking around mountains in California, followed by staring down at a microscope and taking notes. Another project I am workin

g on tries to constrain how the crust is made on planets other than Earth. This research involves studying an extensive meteorite collection from Antarctica. 


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

BG: I have been interested in volcanoes and geology my entire life. This started when I was a kid, and my family would take me on trips to the mountains outside of Portland, Oregon. Learning about the volcanoes and glaciers that formed in those mountains made me profoundly curious about the processes that shaped the world around me. As I got older, I was uninterested in most school science classes, but when the geology units started, everything clicked for me. This led to me taking a geology class during my undergraduate education, and I loved it so much that I decided to make a career out of it.


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

BG: My days are pretty variable, but they almost all consist of a short bike ride into campus to start the day. From there I usually spend my mornings in the office where I read articles, process data, or try some writing of my own. In the afternoon, I switch gears to more active tasks, such as data collection or sample processing. This balance allows me to maximize my most efficient times of the day. A typical day is usually interspersed with lab meetings or reading group sessions. Outside of direct scientific work, I give beach tours with the program Scripps Community Outreach for Public Education, or SCOPE, and have been involved in planning seminars.

 Benjamin Gruber backpacking Mt. San Gorgonio.
Benjamin Gruber backpacking Mt. San Gorgonio.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

BG: The most exciting thing about my work is that my field sessions get me outside! My summer field sessions in the Sierra Nevada mountains with my field partners are busy and we have lots of fun. The goals of these trips are to collect rock samples and take structural measurements of various geologic features. This is usually accomplished during four days of driving along Forest Service roads and hiking to various points of interest while camping at night. At camp, we begin cataloging everything, while trying our best to stay organized after a long day in the field. These trips are the perfect combination of work and adventure. Afterward, we conclude with packing up camp and stopping for pizza before beginning the long drive back to San Diego.


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

BG: My first role models were my parents who instilled an interest in the natural world at an early age. Since then, I’ve had countless role models throughout my career. During my undergraduate degree, I received advice from Dr. Katie Cooper who helped me navigate the complicated graduate school application process. At the University of Alberta, my advisors Dr. Thomas Chacko and Dr. Graham Pearson modeled how to be a good person while also being a good scientist. At Scripps, I look up to my advisor, Dr. Emily Chin, who has taught me about the intricacies of being a good scientist while also balancing hobbies and life. I wouldn’t be the scientist I am today without these people.


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

BG: I think one of the biggest challenges I deal with is that being a geologist is so woven into my identity that it's often hard for me to not feel pressured to know everything there is to know about my field. This can lead to me trying to learn too many topics at once which can be an issue when I need to focus on one particular project. To remedy this, I try my best to keep a good work-life balance by taking time to focus on my hobbies outside of the lab.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

BG: After finishing my degree, I would like to work for the United States Geological Survey to investigate geological processes around our country. This has been my dream for many years. Recently, I’ve also taken an interest in teaching geology at the college level and am looking for ways to pursue that in the future. At the end of the day, I would like to be in a position where my expertise can be used to help people understand more about the world around them.

You can find Gruber on Twitter at @Geo_Gingerbeard.

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