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About the Event

Please note: After the event Twila realized that, in her great excitement about answering the question about blue glacier ice, she misspoke! She accidentally said that blue light is absorbed, when in fact it is reflected (longer wavelengths that produce red are absorbed). In normal snow, all wavelengths are scattered quickly. We hope this doesn't cause any confusion to viewers watching the event archive!


What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
I love outdoor sports – skiing, trail running, whitewater rafting, backpacking, etc. I also love crafts. I even had a small business making belt buckles while I was in graduate school.

Do you play any musical instruments?
I played the saxophone for a long time and sometimes think of taking it up again.

Do you play any sports or do any athletic activities?
Yes! I love to get outside and try to do it everyday. Winter is ski season and summer is trail running and biking season.

What is your favorite non-science book, magazine, or blog?
I like High Country News (news about the American West) and my favorite blog is, which has amazing photos of food and Colorado mountains.

What’s the most frequently played song on your mp3 player?
Martin Sexton’s “Livin the Life” probably wins, but I like lots of music. I also love to turn up Taylor Swift or Katie Perry really loud and sing and dance to it (in the privacy of my own home).

How do you describe yourself?
Outgoing, outdoorsy, science nerd, optimist

Who do you look up to and admire?
I have several mentors and role models in science, including LuAnne Thompson (an oceanographer at the Univ. of Washington) and Lisa Graumlich (a paleo-ecologist and Dean at UW). Mostly I pay attention to the advice and actions of successful scientists, especially women, who I also think are interesting people. Generally I look to people I know for inspiration rather than popular personalities.

Other basic bio info that you’d like to share?
I’m currently working at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the Univ. of Colorado, Boulder. While I’m living in Boulder for the year, my husband and cat are living at home in Big Sky, MT. Commuting this way has both positives and negatives, but is certainly an interesting experience!

Highest degree attained

Schools attended
Stanford – B.S.
University of Washington – M.S. and Ph.D.

Favorite classes/coursework in elementary school, middle school, high school, college
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 educational accomplishments are you most proud of?
Finishing my PhD tops the list, but I’ve worked hard to accomplish many smaller goals along the way.

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.

Univ. of Colorado

Official title
Research Associate (Visiting Fellow)

“Layman’s” title
Glaciologist (I study glaciers and ice)

Years in this organization/position
I just started this job in July, after finishing my PhD. I got my MS during 2005-2008, then worked at Montana State University for 2 years, returning to grad school for 2010-2014.

What does your organization do?
Education! Research!

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

Describe your work environment
I work in a standard sort of office building. I have my own office, but there are many scientists close by who I work and chat with. The environment is casual, so I could come to work in my running shorts if I want. There is a lot of independence in this job.

What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?
Computers, satellite data, field observations. I don’t have a lab or regular fieldwork (just helping out other people).

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 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. I’m also keeping my eyes open for university faculty jobs to apply to.

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 is the most exciting, most amazing, or scariest thing that has happened to you during your work?
In 2006 I went to Greenland to help setup research on two lakes that form on top of the ice sheet. We could tell from satellite pictures that the lakes fill with melt water and then drain each summer. We were hoping to be in the field when one of them drained. We arrived on the ice sheet and setup instruments. We also took along a small inflatable boat with a little outboard engine and went boating around on the largest lake (almost a mile wide). You could tell how deep the water underneath you was based on how blue it was. It was thrilling to be out there and we were looking for weak spots we thought might be the starting points for lake drainage. Unfortunately, it didn’t drain while we were there (it drained about 10 days later) and we had to wait until the next summer to collect the data. It turns out that the entire lake drained in about an hour with flows greater than Niagara Falls! We were very happy after all that it didn’t drain while we were out there in our little boat – and we’ve never taking a boat out on a lake on the ice sheet again.

What would a teenager find interesting about what you do?
Of course, going to the field is a great adventure. But I also get to spend a lot of time looking at cool satellite pictures of the ice and seeing how it changes. Science is about solving mysteries. Just thinking about the ice sheet is amazing – It is more than a mile thick in the middle! When you see an iceberg, you are only seeing 1/10th of the whole thing above water! Parts of the ice sheet move at speeds more than 8 miles per year! It’s also really rewarding to become the expert in something. Then, if someone has a question on that topic, they may come to you for an answer, which could mean a radio or newspaper interview.

What’s the coolest part of your job?
Probably field work. I also love giving presentations and talking to media, going to conferences. Besides, I’m a glaciologist – all parts of my job are “cool”. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself!)

What are some of the perks of your job?
I’m constantly learning new things. I have a flexible schedule, so I can go outdoors in the morning and then work in the afternoon and evening – or vice versa. I get to travel all over for fieldwork, conferences, workshops (Greenland, Norway, Alaska, around the US). I discover new things!

What are the downsides of your job?
Sometimes analyzing data can be boring and repetitive. I usually listen to podcasts when I’m doing that. It can be frustrating if your research idea doesn’t pan out. It can be competitive, requires many years of moving around and education, and you are probably underpaid for your skills for many years.

If asked to “sell” this career to someone, what would you say to convince them to pursue it?
It’s exciting! I’m constantly learning new things and following my own interests and passions. I get to travel and meet other amazing, smart, fun people. There’s flexibility in how I spend my time. 

What’s something that most people don’t know about your job/work?
Many people don’t realize that toward the end of your PhD, you are likely not taking school classes anymore, but spending 100% of your time on research. Many people also don’t realize that in most sciences you are actually paid to go to graduate school (quite unlike medical or law school), so no student debt! Also, a lot of science these days depends on writing skills. And computer science skills are a huge plus, too.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your job/work?
Sometimes people think that I must spend all my time in the field or probably study ice cores or other things they’ve heard more about. There are many, many subfields within science, so you can really specialize on your particular interest and the type of work you like to do (lab work? field work? computer modeling? etc...)

What personal traits make you well suited for the work that you do?
I’m ambitious, detail-oriented, a big-picture thinker, curious, creative, interested in learning new things, not afraid to ask questions, self-motivated, hard working.

What career-related awards or other forms of recognition have you received?
National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship (starting it in 2015) and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. NOAA Postdoctoral Fellowship (declined) and CIRES Postdoctoral Fellowship (where I am now). High visibility publications (including the cover of Science) and media coverage (NPR, BBC, CNN, etc.) are also a huge pat on the back, as are invitations to speak at conferences.

Previous employers and positions that have lead to your current role
High school – science nerd, including winning at the Intel International Science Fair.
College – studies geology and got excited about ice.
Post-college – worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School, including in Alaska, and continued to be excited about the natural world.
MS degree – Greenland Ice Sheet research on how the glaciers there were advancing/retreating.
Managing Director, Big Sky Institute, Montana State University – opened a new branch of a science research and education institute in Big Sky, MT. 
PhD – back to Univ. of Washington to study Greenland glacier velocities and how glaciers and climate/ocean interact.

Other positions not necessarily related to your current career
I did intern at Exxon-Mobil’s Upstream Research Company for several months. Mostly I’ve been on the science track, though. 

Owner of Wild Bear Designs, my belt buckle company, which I sold earlier this year after 3 years in business.

Best job you’ve ever had and why?
This one! When I left grad school after my MS I ended up really missing being a scientist. I had wanted to be a scientist from the age of about 12, but then I had my doubts and tried something a bit different (running the Big Sky Institute). Turned out, though, that science really is my passion. I plan to stay on this path, so that my future as a research scientist and/or professor looks pretty similar to my present.

Worst job you’ve ever had and why?
I once worked for one of the “environmental” groups that has people stand on the streets and try to get people to sign up for whatever their cause is. It was awful! I hated standing around and asking people for their money. I think I only lasted about 2 weeks. Unfortunately for those folks, I still do all I can to avoid them when I see them on the street. I liked bussing tables at a fancy restaurant much better!

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.

Proudest career accomplishment
Getting published on the cover of Science! (And got to be on NPR because of it!) What an adventure!

What were you like as a kid?
Talkative, ambitious straight-A student, a go-getter, loved ballet (that was another career I wanted for a long time), loved physical activities (though mostly individual sports or outdoor stuff), buck-toothed, probably a bit demanding and determined (actually I’m sure my parents would say yes to that). In high school, I liked doing “alternative” things like wearing combat boots with my homecoming dress and shaving my head.

What were your favorite books/shows/movies when you were a kid?
Reading Rainbow, 3-2-1 Contact, Dirty Dancing, Judy Blume books (especially Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great), Babysitters Club books. I didn’t care for dolls or watch that much TV. We lived across the alley from a park, so there was lots of goofing off there.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up at age 12? At age 15? At age 18?
I wanted to be a dentist or orthodontist from about 5 to 12. Then for about a year I wanted to be a ballet dancer. About 13 or so I decided I wanted to be a professor. I’ve pretty much been stuck on it since.

When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
I think I already covered this. I love science!

Who inspired you on this path?
That is a good question. I did have some great middle and high school science teachers. Being involved in science fair was great fun and encouragement.

What did you believe about this career before entering into it that proved to be different once you were in?
This is not something you think about as much when you are young, but science requires being a bit of a nomad for a long time. Moving for school, postdoctoral work, jobs. When you’re older (and married) this can be more trying. Mostly, though, it’s still the fun I always thought it would be.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what other career(s) might you have pursued?
I tried some other things, but didn’t really like them. If I liked writing more I think it would be fun to be a journalist or science writer. Then you still get to travel, learn new things, and have some flexibility.

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 advice would you give students in general?
The best way to be able to do what you want in the future is to do well at what you are doing now. The more you succeed in school or hobbies now, the more options you will continue to have and you will be able to choose your own path (and pay the bills). Embrace learning new things. It might turn out to be something you love.

What are some interesting places you’ve traveled?
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.

Additional resources
Twila's website: