Quick Take:

Harbor High School graduating senior Morgyn Michelson wouldn’t describe herself as super social, but that doesn’t mean she won’t put herself out there. Whether it’s being the only one in costume — and one she’s created herself — or playing a sport for the first time, or correcting a sitting judge, Michelson might be a little shy, but she’ll put her knowledge and planning skills to the test to see how she’ll fare in almost any challenge. 

Morgyn Michelson has designed dozens of her own costumes — mostly for Halloween — and it’s more the process of designing them than the wearing of them that she enjoys the most.

“I woke up at 5 a.m. and started doing the ribs on my chest,” she said. “When I moved my arms, the ribs would move on my body. And then on my face, I had prosthetic horns and blended them into my face with paint.”

Her fascination with Halloween and costume design started with watching a horror film, “The Mist,” for the first time at the age of 5 with her dad. While she spent most of the time watching the movie hiding behind her dad’s back out of fear, she remembers wondering how they could make everything look so horrifying and real.

She’s willing to challenge herself to do something that scared her — in this case, watching a horror movie at that early age. And that matches up with her enthusiastic curiosity, learning how the filmmakers achieved those special effects

Now she’s set to apply those traits as she heads to college, as an 18-year-old senior having graduated from Harbor High School on Friday, to study biochemistry at UCLA in the fall. Morgyn has excelled overall: playing varsity tennis, excelling in mock trial and maintaining a 4.0 GPA, among her varied accomplishments.

She’s clearly a planner, already thinking about her trajectory to become a forensic pathologist — a career that brings together her many passions for learning, solving mysteries and understanding death and biology. Those planning genes surfaced early: She spent a year planning a different costume for each day of October for her sophomore year. The costumes included a cowboy with a bullet wound, a skeleton, a witch, and her favorite, a demon. For the demon costume, she made prosthetic ribs out of toilet paper, liquid latex and fake blood.

“It’s about seeing how close I can get to what I’m thinking about, and how scary it is,” she said. “And it’s how good I can make it based on the materials that I’m using — what I can put together and how I can make things.”

That Morgyn wants to become a forensic pathologist comes as no surprise to her mom, Katy.

“It fits,” she said. “It’s like she’s been building a master puzzle of her life, and she’s connecting all these little pieces of her interests like one big picture.”

She also describes Morgyn, her oldest daughter of three, as being an “easy wonder” since she was a baby. She enjoyed entertaining herself as much as she got along with others.

“The first thing I want to say about Morgyn is that she always has a plan. Always, always, always has a plan,” said Katy. “And she’s been like that since she was little, always thinking like three steps ahead and what she wants to do and what she wants to accomplish.”

Katy said she and Morgyn’s father, Damian, love playing board games with the girls. It’s while playing board games that some of Morgyn’s strongest qualities come out.

“My husband is a board game enthusiast, so we’ve got several hundred board games and Morgyn is probably one of the only people in the family that can beat him at the board game,” she said. “She’s the queen of strategy.”

Morgyn put those skills to the test when she decided to join Harbor High’s mock trial club.

Harbor High senior Morgyn Michelson
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Her attorney coach, Jeff Kirk, and her advisor, Guy French, both recall how Morgyn took on the role of pretrial attorney — a role typically filled by seniors — as a freshman. A pretrial attorney must make their arguments to actual sitting judges, unlike other student attorneys, who engage with other students.

Kirk, who did 17 years of litigation and then 13 years of contract negotiation, worked with Morgyn for her freshman and sophomore years. He said Morgyn had an admirable sense of calm talking to judges and voraciously read through the materials so she could successfully argue them.

“She had the quality of being able to stand up there and be comfortable in front of a crowd and to respond succinctly and accurately to the judges questions,” he said. “And then she could get back to her line of argument, which is something that most lawyers can’t do — after three years of law school and 10 years of experience. So when you find a freshman or sophomore in high school [doing that], you think, ‘Oh, this special person is going to do really, really great things.’”

French remembers an interaction Morgyn had with a judge her freshman year. The judge cited a case law, and he and Kirk — who can’t get involved in the trial — commented to each other that what the judge said was incorrect.

“And Morgan calmly waited until the judge was finished and then said, ‘Hey, this is actually what the case law says,” recalled French. “And not only did the judge end up agreeing with her but after the trial, they made a note of saying to Morgyn, ‘It was very impressive that you didn’t just take my word for it, because I was a judge, but you actually stood up for yourself.’”

Morgyn remembers it too as her proudest moment in mock trial.

“I was so nervous about it, because I thought it was right. But I wasn’t sure,” she said. “And I was right — I was really happy about that.”

Morgyn considered pursuing law as a career, but says she felt the stress of the job would be too much.

“But I also got way too nervous for it to be something I do on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “And I don’t want an ulcer by the time I’m 40.”

But it was during one mock trial event that a student acting as an expert witness, who was a forensic pathologist, that she first thought about it as an interesting option. In that case, the forensic pathologist was describing a wound on the back of someone’s head in vivid detail.

“Them being able to find out all of that information, just by looking at a person, and knowing the specifics of how swelling occurs in water from wound sites, it’s crazy,” she said. “It interests me to be able to know that much about something from the tiny details.”

She feels it’s everything she could want in a job.

“It is about the process for me, and it is about learning,” she says. “It’s about putting everything together and building it up — and less about the results.”

Her curiosity and hard work didn’t go unrecognized. As a graduating senior who earned a minimum 3.0 GPA and participated in a variety of activities while attending high school, Morgyn applied for and earned a scholarship from Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. She’s one of 31 local seniors who earned either one-time or annually renewable scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, winning the Barbara J. Thompson Scholarship award, which is a one-time award of $1,000. (For more information on how to apply or how to support the scholarship programs, click here.)

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...