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Studying climate change’s effects on glacial ice

After competing in the Society’s science competitions, our alumni go on to research incredible things. Twila Moon, an Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) finalist in 1996, 1998, and 1999, is now a Ph.D. candidate in the Earth and Space Sciences department at the University of Washington. She studies the velocities of outlet glaciers on the Greenland Ice Sheet.

How did you get involved in science and science fairs like the Intel ISEF?

I was always interested in and liked science growing up. I competed in my first science fair somewhere around the 5th grade, where I grew crystals for my project. I actually skipped the 7th grade, but the science teacher wouldn’t let me skip that particular class, so I ended up taking two science classes that year- which I thought was great! In high school, I began to do particularly well in science fairs and had the opportunity to compete at Intel ISEF multiple times.

What was your experience being an International Science and Engineering Fair finalist like?

I had the opportunity to travel and compete at Intel ISEF in Tucson, Philadelphia, and Fort Worth. Intel ISEF is an amazing experience. You get to be around a bunch of other students who also really like science. You could tell science jokes and sit up late and talk about cool new ideas. It’s inspiring seeing what other projects are there, but it’s also a fun time to get together with people interested in the same things as you, and to sit around thinking about intellectual ideas. It was great that science enabled me to travel. Not only did I get to travel to the locations of Intel ISEF, but also one year I won the opportunity to attend the South American international science fair held in Brazil.

Competing in science fairs was fun during the preparation, too. I learned new things and met lots of different people in the community. I made connections at Colorado College and the University of Colorado and was able to work with teachers outside of my high school. It’s really a win/win. Science fairs give you the chance to do cool new projects, and then being successful at them leads you on to even more fun opportunities.

One year I qualified for Intel ISEF as part of a team project. I had previous experience in computer models and my partner had done wetlands research. We combined what we knew to do a project modeling wetland plants and predicting what the plant community would be like in the future. The team project was more like how science works in the real world; we were coming from different fields and putting our knowledge together. It’s rare as a scientist for someone to be doing research alone. It’s all about finding people who do things that are outside of your own expertise and creating a new project in which the sum is greater than its parts. 

How did participating in events like Intel ISEF affect your career trajectory?

In high school, I was interested in computer science and math. While I ended up going into earth sciences, having experience and background knowledge in those technical fields, especially as a female, even if it isn’t the main thing I do, is very important. It’s easy as a graduate student and even later in your career to lose confidence in yourself, because you are always around smart people doing remarkable work. Having early successes in competitions like Intel ISEF and knowing that you can apply and master many kinds of science and math knowledge and skills is a good reminder that you do belong in the scientific community.

It was also a great opportunity to meet other people that are excited about science and learn about all the ways that you can use science. Plus, I won money for college. I realized that I could be really successful in this field, and meeting so many other amazing scientists I didn’t feel like a nerd. I found out you don’t have to fit a stereotype; you can be a fun, successful scientist no matter the type of person you are.

What are you up to now?

I’m currently finishing up my Ph.D. I study the Greenland Ice Sheet, mostly using satellite data, although I had a chance to do some field work this summer. Think of an ice sheet like a big lake of ice- lakes have outlet streams but ice sheets have outle t glaciers. Those glaciers move ice from the interior of the ice sheet out into the ocean, where it melts and affects sea level rise. I study the velocities of outlet glaciers, how the ice sheet interacts with the ocean, and the connection between the ice sheet and the climate system.

Do you have any advice for young students interested in science?

It’s very important to find a project you are excited about. There are interesting questions to be asked and answered in any field of science you can imagine, and you need to find one that’s really intriguing for you. Some parts of doing research aren’t as fun; for example, processing data or observing in the field for hours with lots of mosquitoes, but if you’re passionate about what you are doing, you can still see the contribution of the boring parts to what you are going to learn in answering the big, exciting questions. Passion makes you willing to do things other people aren’t so you can find the answer.  Finding out new things is an exciting part of being a scientist!

Find other people who believe in your skills and can encourage you. Find friends that are excited by science too. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help. You can’t ask someone to do your project for you, but if you are genuinely interested in the topic and there is someone in your community who could help you out or provide mentorship, don’t be shy about asking.

Most importantly, have fun! Think about what you can learn from the experience and how you can use it to take the next step in your research. Even if you don’t become a scientist, the critical thinking and ability to think objectively are skills you will use later. Take advantage of opportunities like science fair while you can. Also, being a scientist is really fun and can lead to great adventures. You can do many amazing things with it throughout your life; so if you like science, stick with it.

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