Science communication expert Hedi Roop (left) and Wheelhouse Institute co-founder and artist Nina Elder talk it out during a workshop at the inaugural gathering of Wheelhouse. Twila Moon has ice on the mind—her studies focus on things like ice dynamics and loss and the hydrology of glaciers and how they interact with the ocean. She’s also interested in furthering the work of other women in leadership roles in and out of science.

Let our powers combine

Female leaders from across the U.S. gather in Big Sky as founding fellows of Wheelhouse Institute

Sometimes, you just know. For Big Sky resident and glaciology research scientist Twila Moon, a career in science came naturally.

“I’ve probably been a scientist since I was a little kid,” Moon said, smiling. “Actually, science and art have always been at the top of my interest list. It was pretty clear at a young age that I had big dreams of being a scientist when I grew up. It was engrained in me somewhere along the way.”

And then, she discovered glaciology when she was in college. “And that was sort of, you know, the beginning of the end,” she laughed.

Moon came to Big Sky 10 years ago to start up and manage the Montana State University Big Sky Institute, a research center focused on getting folks in touch with the Yellowstone ecosystem. She eventually left that position to pursue her Ph.D. and return to science research.

She now works as a research scientist for the University of Colorado National Snow and Ice Data Center, currently focusing on a grant-funded study of the motion and changes of the Greenland ice sheet. The study is asking questions about how quickly it’s changing, what that means for sea level rise and freshwater input into the ocean. Moon is also working on synthesizing arctic research to be presented to policy makers.

The makings of Wheelhouse Institute

About a year ago Moon and long-time friend and artist Nina Elder had an idea—one that would bring like-minded, professional women together to combine their skills for a greater purpose.

Moon was across the pond finishing up her job as a lecturer at the University of Bristol and was Skyping with Elder about what opportunities lay ahead when she moved back to Big Sky. 

“Over recent years we’d had a lot of discussions about the interface of art and science, and learning from each other about how our respective fields work,” Moon said, recalling her chats with Elder. “And also, different benefits of working with and collaborating with other women. So, we had a growing sense of a real need within that space.”

And through that England to Colorado Skype discussion, the idea for Wheelhouse Institute was born.

“We said, ‘Ok, let’s do this,” Moon recalled of the “aha!” moment over a computer screen. “We thought, ‘Where do we want to have an impact and how can we help people?’ We wanted to do something bigger than ourselves.” 

Big Sky would be the home base for this annual meeting of the minds, and for those moving forward. But what to call it? Moon and Elders set a deadline of two weeks to brainstorm. Moon said she had two names in mind, and when she ran Wheelhouse Institute past Elders, the lightbulb went off—Elders had also written down Wheelhouse.

The word wheelhouse is used to convey a variety of meanings. At its base it’s the part of a ship that shelters the person at the wheel. But it also refers to one’s expertise or interest—some skills are “in one’s wheelhouse,” and two people who share a similar idea are said to be “in the same wheelhouse.”  

“It was just clear that is what it should be,” Moon recalled. “It really manages to get that idea that every woman is sharing a skill from her wheelhouse and every woman’s skill wheelhouse is expanding in the experiment. And, also, that sense of forward momentum. It just felt right.”

Bringing Wheelhouse to Big Sky

The inaugural meeting of the Wheelhouse Institute Founding Fellows took place in Moon’s Firelight chalet over a mid-January long weekend. In attendance were a filmmaker, a freelance science journalist, a tropical ecologist, a novelist and others who traveled from around the U.S.

Moon said bringing this diverse group of women together for a first meeting brought on some anxiety of the unknown, but it was unjustified. “It was incredible. It was really all that we had hoped it would be. It was wonderful to see these people, who didn’t really know each other, really come together and be able to teach valuable skills that are useful across these disciplines, and inform each other, and support each other in making big leaps or pursuing big ideas,” Moon said. 

During the Wheelhouse first meetings, each attendee had a skill teaching session as well as a project, idea or discussion that the whole group workshopped together. Topics ranged from design thinking and rapid prototyping to objective storytelling and budget strategies and fiscal thinking. The spacious chalet allowed them to project on the walls, utilize counter space for sketch pads, and meet in small groups for discussion. 

“The idea is that people are teaching skills,” Moon said. “As a glaciologist, I wasn’t teaching people about ice sheets. It was about working on the skills that make us successful leaders across these disciplines and help us better work together across disciplines.”

Moon said she’s had great response from several founding fellows of Wheelhouse, including Fiona McDonald.

“This was one of the most formidable learning experiences that I have had as a researcher in years,” McDonald wrote in an email to the Lookout. “I learned about design thinking, how to brainstorm outside of my own wheelhouse/research area, and how important small groups of driven individuals can be to create innovative futures. And I walked away having felt heard, valued and respected.”

What’s up next

Moon said the plan is to keep Big Sky as the anchor location for Wheelhouse meetings. “I would really love Wheelhouse to be something that continues to integrate with the Big Sky community. All of the women, when we put out that idea, said this is an amazing place to come and feel a little separated from my urban environment, my university, my organization and to have free space to go outdoors, all of those things that people that live here get to benefit from.” 

McDonald is currently based in Indianapolis, and said her first-time trip to Big Sky was one she looks forward to doing again. 

“I think that basing the Wheelhouse Institute out of Big Sky is important—having roots for a movement such as Wheelhouse means that fellows will always feel like they have a ‘home’ to return to and speak of even though we are a globally, distributed group of women,” McDonald said. “Big Sky offers a sense of stability, constancy and fortitude.”

Projects are already stemming from the first Wheelhouse meeting—two women are working on a course at the University of Utah, three have plans to collaborate on a National Geographic film and others are working on science communications. 

The goal is to stay connected. This summer the founding fellows will meet again for another workshop period. Before that, every month they’ll have a one-on-one Skype chat to continue strengthening individual relationships, and every so often they’ll have group calls to build upon the collaborative relationships that began this January. 

“One of the women had the saying, ‘Our breadth comes from our depth,’ It’s the idea that people come together for professional development workshops, and they might have a great experience, but in all likelihood, there’s not a very deep follow up, so very few of those relationships are going to last,” Moon said. “We’re wanting to form and focus on smaller groups that have a lot of depth, making sure that the long-term relationships and support come through—we can make more impactful long-term changes.”

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