Category Archives: Personal Essays

Bio Of A First-Generation College Student

I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1950 – the eldest child of Marguerite (Peggy) and Melvin (Mel) Swanberg, Sr.

On the left, a photo of Margeurite and Melvin E. Swanberg, Sr.; on the right, a photo of Melvin E. Swanberg (photographs courtesy of Margeurite Swanberg).


Sisters Jill and Jennifer were also born in Massachusetts. My sister, Kristine, was born in Pomona, California and my brother, Melvin Jr., was born in Binghamton, New York.


In the late 1950s, we moved to Pomona, California, where my sister Kristine was born. I attended school in Pomona for part of second and all of third grade. The California lifestyle was a real culture shock for a girl from Boston. I attended school with John Provost of “Lassie” fame. People thought my Boston accent was funny and made fun of it.


After I completed third grade, we moved to New York State for a few years. We returned to California in the 1960s – this time moving to Claremont. I felt like an outsider. My parents hadn’t attended college, which immediately sent me to the bottom of the Claremont hierarchy. I could play soccer, but had no idea how to spike a volley ball and never learned how to skateboard. I also liked science.


After graduating from high school most of my friends went off to college, but I stayed in Claremont. I’d wanted to be a scientist since the age of five, but the way forward wouldn’t become apparent until much later. I had to make my own way. My parents didn’t understand my desire to attend college and thought it was unnecessary, especially as I was a girl. I was expected to stay home until I got married.


It was tough to watch my CHS classmates leaving Claremont for schools like Wellesley, Brown and Swarthmore while I stayed behind. I was admitted to Pomona College and Clark University (having paid the application fees by saving up my lunch money as well as money from babysitting and ironing), but even though my father earned a good living, the barriers to attending college at that point in time were insurmountable, so I took a job in a cafeteria at the Montclair Plaza. As soon as I got my first paycheck, I found an apartment and started planning how I would manage to go to college.


Eventually I figured out a path to the education I longed for and accumulated degrees with a vengeance – a B.A. in psychology, a J.D. in law, an M.S. in biological sciences, a Ph.D. in genetics and an M.A. in journalism.


I’ve worked as a criminal attorney, a geneticist and am now employed as an associate professor at the University of Arizona, School of Journalism in Tucson where I conduct research on the history of science journalism. I also teach reporting, environmental journalism, science journalism and media law.



My husband  (Richard Wood, a death penalty mitigation and three-strikes sentencing expert with his own investigation business) and I now live on our tiny ”ranch” twenty miles north of Tucson where we keep three dogs, three horses and an African grey parrot. For fun, we ride our horses in the hills at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I also dabble in photography.


Both my children attended college. My son, Justin Adler-Swanberg (born in Eugene, Oregon), moved to New York City where he worked for an advertising agency located in the new World Trade Center. Ironically, for a while he become an East Coast guy. He recently moved to L.A. where he is doing similar work – with a grander title and for more money. My daughter, Dana Zelenka, lives and works in the Sacramento area. She is an independent young woman who works in a field dominated by men. She rides a Harley for fun. In spring of 2017, she toured Europe. She just completed her training for a new position with Geico Insurance.


My memories of Claremont High School include the following:

  • Biology with Mr. Sigler: Mr. Sigler was one of my favorite memories. He was a great mentor who nurtured my interest in science.

  • Chemistry with Mr. Bookout: Mr. Bookout was serious about chemistry, but he was fun, too. Sometimes he’d aim the fire extinguisher at students he thought were daydreaming. He’d shoot the chemtrail from the extinguisher inches away from your foot or your books. I also remember him telling us about the time his Model A (or was it his Model T?) rolled over. In the accident he got battery acid all over his clothes which began to disintegrate as he walked home. He was a wonderful storyteller! Amazingly, I still have my chemistry lab book. The safety instructions are fun to read.

  • English with Mrs. Wagoner: This experience was – interesting. When I ran into her after graduating from high school and told her that I was working in a cafeteria she said to me, “I’m glad you’ve found your niche.”

  • Amazingly (as I was a nerd, not a party girl) I was invited to a senior party. I was asked to play one of the “vestal virgins” in a skit. I had to decide whether I would “be a good sport” or refuse to play the demeaning role. My decision would be life-altering.

  • I remember the wonderful team-taught course (I think it was called “Humanities”) where we read literature, including C.P. Snow’s lecture, The Two Cultures, about the relationship between science and the humanities. Snow’s writings had a transformative impact on me. I am a confirmed “Two Cultures” person with one foot in science and the other in the humanities.

Susan E. Swanberg © 2018, 2019, 2022. All rights reserved in text and photography.

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Cochise Stronghold

Awarded Honorable Mention in the First Person category at the AEJMC Student Magazine Contest (2012).

Dana and Susan (photograph courtesy of Richard Wood).

Cochise Stronghold 

by Susan E. Swanberg

I climb into the truck and check the map again. Once I leave Tucson, I-10 to El Paso drifts past towns with names like Dragoon, Cochise and Bowie.

My daughter should be with me. This should be her pilgrimage.

I drive, the sights and smells of the Southwest bombard me through the gap in the driver’s side window–dry desert sand, sage, the smoky smell of mesquite. I’m headed to sacred places that don’t belong to me. (Read more of Cochise Stronghold)

Read about the Cañada Alamosa archeological project.

Susan E. Swanberg©2012, 2019. All rights reserved in text and photos.


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“A Scientific American”

Collage: Photographs of my father in his navy uniform , a photograph of my father and I and an issue of his beloved Scientific American magazines (collage created by Susan E. Swanberg).

The photograph of Melvin E. Swanberg in his navy uniform was likely taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s. To the right are photographs of my father and I and the cover of one of his beloved Scientific American magazines (photo illustration by Susan E. Swanberg).

Soon after he died, my mother presented me with a trove of my father’s magazines, saying, “He would have wanted you to have these.” I gasped as I thumbed through each dusty issue and recalled how my father had planted the seeds of a scientist’s curiosity in my young brain, seeds that would blossom years later when I returned to school to study for a Ph.D. in genetics. (Read more of A Scientific American by Susan E. Swanberg – 2012 & 2019)

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