Full Interview: Twila Moon

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Name?  Twila Moon 

Where were you born? Colorado Springs, CO

Where do you currently live? Big Sky, Montana  

What is the highest degree you obtained? PhD

Where did you go to school? Stanford – B.S. University of Washington – M.S. and Ph.D.

What were your favorite classes in school? Art and science have always been the top of my list, though I love school in general. In middle school I skipped 7th grade, but I had to take both 7th and 8th grade science that year. I loved that! I think art is a great compliment to science and really enjoyed classes from painting to printmaking to ceramics.

What kinds of challenges did you overcome during your education? I was really lucky to have fantastic education opportunities through the public school system and then support from my parents to go to college at Stanford. I was made fun of some in middle school when I skipped a grade, but I focused on hanging out with other fun people and paying attention to school.

Who do you work for right now? Univ. of Colorado, soon University of Oregon

What’s you official title? Postdoctoral Fellow: Glaciologist (study glaciers and ice), Scientist

What is your role in the organization? Analyzing science data and publishing papers. Making scientific discoveries!

Describe your work environment. Mostly I work at my home office, which has all the normal items. However, I collaborate with and visit scientists all over. I’m regularly emailing or Skyping with other people. My science community is excellent and supportive. Also, I love the independence of my job.

Describe a typical day in your job. Most days are spent on my computer. I look at satellite images of the Greenland or Antarctic Ice Sheets, work on analyzing data, and usually work on writing or editing a science paper. Sometimes there’s a meeting, lecture to listen to or a short teaching/outreach event that I’m participating in.

Describe an atypical (but notable) day in your job. Occasionally I get to travel to do fieldwork. In Greenland, we often stay in a small town on the west coast (Illulisat), which has more sled dogs than people and a great view of Jakobshavn Fjord, which has many icebergs. A typical day there is: After breakfast, drive out to the little airport. Cross your fingers that the weather is good and load science equipment and yourselves into a helicopter. Fly out the field sites on the ice sheet and check instruments, download data, etc. If there’s extra fuel, we might take an extra swing around the iceberg-choked fjord where the ice sheet and ocean meet. Dinner might be reindeer or halibut.

How is the work you do important to society? The Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets are losing ice and are main contributors to sea level rise, which is felt around the world. I work to understand how quickly the ice sheets are changing and how the ice interacts with the ocean and atmosphere. The better we can understand these processes, the more skill we might have at predicting future sea level rise. The ice sheets also contribute significant freshwater to the ocean. Understanding how quickly the ice sheets lose ice (which melts to become freshwater) can help us understand potential impacts for ocean circulation and biology too.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role? Published a paper as the cover article in Science, was on National Public Radio, received graduate and postgraduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation, made great strides in learning more about the range and variability of glacier behavior across the whole Greenland Ice Sheet.

What projects or goals are you currently pursuing? Right now I’m starting some new work looking at ice motion in the Antarctic Peninsula. I’m also continuing work around the Greenland Ice Sheet and working to publish papers on this research.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work? 1) Doing science can be difficult. It requires learning new things and thinking creatively. This can be very challenging (but also one of my favorite parts). 2) Another challenge is finding funding to pay for the science. There are many interesting, important science studies that folks would like to do and not all of it can be funded right now, so it’s hard work to get support.

 What was your biggest career “break” or notable moment? I got into graduate school but then deferred for a year so that I could ski bum and play in the outdoors. Lucky for me, during that year my now advisor, Ian Joughin, arrived at UW. I was his first student and worked with him for my MS and PhD. He was an amazing advisor and really helped me to realize my potential.

Why did you agree to become a STEM Role Model? I think we need as many women STEM role models as we can get. Science sometimes gets a bad rap for being dorky/boring/too hard/straight edged. I want to be an example of someone having a great time, who’s also fun and outgoing (hey, I’ve got a nose ring and a tattoo, and my picture was in Powder magazine – I don’t even own a white lab coat)!

What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing your career? Be curious. Pay attention to what excites you the most. Find people who are doing what you envision for yourself and ask them what they did to get there. Science, math, and computer skills are important – do well in those classes. And don’t be intimidated. These are not innate skills – it takes hard work to learn them, but you can do it! Don’t be afraid to try things – there’s nothing wrong with not getting it right the first (or fifth) time.

What are some interesting places you’ve traveled for your career? Nepal, Greenland, Norway, New Zealand, Alaska, British Virgin Islands.

What question should we have asked you but didn’t? Do you heat your house with a wood burning stove and eat elk stew from an animal your husband shot with a bow and arrow while simultaneously doing cutting edge research with terabytes of data and high speed internet? Yes, I do just that when I’m working from home in Montana! Modern world meets Montana mountain living. 

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