Howie Sisters Keep Close to Nature’s Heart

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Howie Sisters Keep Close to Nature’s Heart

This story originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of The Jag magazine.


In February 1941, a fire raged through the Spanish northern coastal town of Santander for two days, killing one fireman and burning 376 buildings to the ground. Overnight, 10,000 people lost their homes and 7,000 had no jobs to return to. The medieval city center was destroyed. Today, Santander has emerged a Smart City, using electronic data collection to efficiently manage resources like power and the water supply, and Spain’s largest corporation, Banco Santander, is headquartered there. For Wellington alumna Cliona Howie ’93, it is home. It is also the base from where she frequently travels as a circle economy business developer for Climate - KIC, Europe’s largest public-private partnership on climate innovation and entrepreneurship. On any given week, she can be found in a European city engaged in intense meetings with business, government, and political leaders. It seems only fitting that after choosing to make the environment and sustainability her career, Cliona should live in Santander, a city completely reborn from the ashes of a natural disaster and transformed into an eco-city on the hill.

But that would only be part of the story. Santander is also the birthplace of her mother Olga and a setting that Cliona, along with brother Morgan ’90 and sister Mikaela ’97, became intimately familiar with from an early age. Although Olga moved to Ireland at 19 to learn English and immerse herself in a new culture, eventually meeting their father Michael, himself an Englishman pursuing a medical degree at Trinity College in Dublin, Santander remained ever present in their lives.

“As children we spent our summers living in our grandparents’ house in Northern Spain,” Cliona says. “The experience of this complete contrast to our normal Midwest life was enough of a spark to know that I would somehow, someday live in Europe.”

Mikaela had a similar foretelling experience during their visits. “My grandparents’ house was also really important in learning how to live simply,” she recalls, “as we spent our summers there with no phone or hot water, and an outside shower.” This introduction to living without creature comforts proved pivotal for Mikaela as she has since gone on to forge a career as a wildlife researcher, often in remote locations for long periods of time. Now living in Bozeman, Montana, she teaches in the local public schools and at Montana State University, while also joining research teams during the warmer months of the year. This summer Mikaela will teach Field Ornithology at MSU, taking students on field trips to identify bird species of southwest Montana as well as their natural history, habitat affinities, and conservation statuses. She also will install stream gauges along the Yellowstone River this spring to set up a long-term monitoring system for the river to provide baseline data for years to come.

In her spare time, Mikaela volunteers at the local board of the Montana Wilderness Association helping to protect wildlife. “My interest in wildlife and ecology was instilled in me at a young age,” she says. “We spent many weekends and holidays at our farm near Circleville, Ohio, and it was there that I realized how much I liked just hiking around and observing nature. As a family, we spent a lot of time outdoors working in our yard, at our farm, skiing, and other activities. I learned to adapt well to weather and to be without commodities all the time.”

The family’s history of exploration and openness to countries and cultures beyond their own had an enormous impact on the children, as Cliona has equally fond memories of time spent together outside. “Our parents never pushed us to be nature lovers, but it was a natural outcome of having spent so much of our time enjoying what nature had to offer. Outdoor sport of every kind was the basis of how we spent time together as a family, from all ball and racquet sports to fishing, skiing, sailing, hiking, camping, snorkeling. We did it all and hence grew an appreciation of what this magical planet has to offer.”

The budding conservationists found they had room to grow and flourish at Wellington under the guidance of talented faculty like science teachers John Kruzan and Carol Goldsmith. “She was not an easy teacher and her class was challenging,” Mikaela says of Goldsmith, a Wellington legend for her infectious love of science. “She knew both my brother and sister before me, and knew that we were academically capable and challenged me to be better. She also planned a weekend field trip to the Olentangy River to learn about its ecology, collect data, and do some clean-up. That may have been my first scientific field collection for school.”

Despite a genuine curiosity and interest in science, Cliona did not find the subject terribly easy. Inspirational and engaging teachers made all the difference, though. “There was never any doubt that I would go into the sciences. If I truly think about it, I never considered any alternative and can only assume that this feeling came from my deep respect and admiration for the natural world. Both Carol Goldsmith and John Kruzan remain, to this day, two very influential people from my high school years. Their classes were dynamic, fun, and challenging. I was encouraged and pushed to think critically and analytically. Again it is not to be underestimated that science was never an ‘easy A’ for me.”

Her prodigious work ethic took Cliona to Clemson University in South Carolina. In addition to offering a wide variety of classes for a degree in biological sciences, the school also had an enviable geographical location in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, bordering the immense fresh water Lake Hartwell, and just a few hours from the coastline. “Outside of my studies, I lived an incredible quality of life. With very little effort, I was lost in the green, muggy forests mountain biking, hiking, fishing, and camping. It was so easy and inexpensive to connect with the outdoor life. An endless supply of entertainment that was healthy and fun was always on hand.”

With an initial goal of one day attending medical school, Cliona’s undergraduate studies were loaded with all the sciences, but it was the biology classes that most excited her. After going to medical school for a year and then taking some time off to work as a snowboard and ski instructor in Switzerland, she thought carefully about what mattered most to her and how she could use her skills to address larger societal issues. She suddenly found herself researching master of science programs in environmental science and decided on Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom.

Cliona considers her beginnings in biology and environmental science very much related to the protection and conservation of natural resources. She studied scientific and engineering methodologies and applied research with the goal of minimizing the impact of development on the natural world, even designing her own niche area of expertise in aquatic ecology resources. It wasn’t until she began working for a regional Chamber of Commerce that Cliona could apply her vast knowledge of sustainability on a more practical level.

“It was a strange and new experience for me,” she remembers. “I had spent so much of my studies and work avoiding financial systems and business economics that I often wondered how I had ended up there. Eco-innovation was the culprit. New technologies that contributed to impact reduction and working with industry to apply those technologies meant I had to get my head quickly around business systems and regional economies. Of course, I wasn’t enamoured by accounts and profit margins, but it was wholly satisfying helping a company modify its culture and business model to turn environmental impact reduction into efficiency performance.”

Mikaela’s lifelong interest in wildlife conservation was born from her love of being outdoors and reading about wildlife species of the world, which included their conservation status. It didn’t come together as a potential career for her, though, until she went to Tulane University as an anthropology major minoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. After spending a semester abroad in Galway, Ireland, where she studied archaeology, Irish literature, and European history, Mikaela decided to take on a double major in both anthropology and ecology and evolutionary biology. Having world-renowned ornithologist Dr. Thomas Sherry as an academic advisor left an impression on her.

“I think my eventual focus in avian conservation came from Dr. Sherry’s influence,” Mikaela says, “and use of his own avian research in class. Also, I ended up being his field assistant for a summer in the Pearl River Swamp of Louisiana, where the last confirmed sighting of the Ivory-billed woodpecker was recorded. Plus, the sheer avian diversity of Louisiana is enough to get anyone interested in birds!”

As a graduate student at the College of William & Mary, Mikaela had the opportunity to study with another well-known ornithologist and professor, Daniel Cristol, and embarked on a decade of research investigating the impacts of a mercury spill in the South River (in western Virginia along the Shenandoah National Park) on the local bird community. The research led to a $10 million lawsuit that funded an extensive cleanup, education, research, and data sharing. It was a time of very gratifying work that she is, to this day, most proud of in her career.

“Our research was highly collaborative and brought together many motivated and skilled people with the goal of producing good science that was directly applied to determining the ecological costs involved when mercury is spilled into a river,” Mikaela explains. “It was an amazing experience to work with such great scientists and those people are part of my professional community to this day. The other reason I will say that I am most proud of this particular research experience is that it has proven to me that persistence and resilience are worth it.” Grit and determination proved invaluable traits for Mikaela when, upon graduating with her master’s of science, she made multiple unsuccessful attempts to publish her thesis work in a peer-review journal. While a significant contributor to the long-term research project, up until that point she had yet to be a first author. She refused to give up, though, and with the support of her academic advisor finally published her thesis work in 2018.

Tenacity and fortitude have always been in the Howie sisters’ blood. At Wellington, Mikaela played varsity tennis and lacrosse all four years of high school. She was captain for both the girls lacrosse and tennis teams and considers the school integral to developing her confidence. “I have always been a small but athletic girl,” she says, “and since Wellington was a small school, I was given the opportunity to reach my athletic abilities.” Before attending Tulane, she even spent a year at The Ohio State University where she could pursue her passion for playing Division I college lacrosse.

Cliona made school history as the first basketball player to score 1,000 points. “Playing sports at Wellington was some of the most fun I have had in my life,” she says when reminded of her accomplishment. “I was a proud Jag and so happy to share the field/court with fellow athletes. I loved every minute of all three sports that I played and would cut off my left pinky finger to play a sport that consistently again.”

Today, Cliona is using everything she learned as a student and athlete to fight climate change. At Climate-KIC, she works “to put the EU economy on the road to transformation to a circular economic system that uses natural resources in the most efficient way, preserves the value of materials and products, and reduces the negative impact of economic activities on the environment and health. Circular economy is an opportunity for society to secure access to vital resources, maintain competitiveness, and ensure a high-quality environment for citizens. With its truly symbiotic effects on the economy and the environment, the circular economy is a way of achieving certain United Nations sustainable development goals.”

What has made her most proud in her career was helping family businesses stay afloat during a very challenging financial time while also reducing waste by applying circular economy principles. “When the global economic crisis hit Spain, the effects were very visible,” Cliona says. “All around me people were losing their jobs and therefore their security. This included professional services like engineers, architects, wasn’t limited to blue-collar jobs. Spain is still a culture that builds on family relations and in my region, many family owned businesses that had been running for three, four, even five generations were facing shutting down, ending a legacy and sending many workers home with no paycheck. I worked with many of these companies to diversify their business model by identifying value in their production of byproducts (waste that isn’t waste!). These companies weren’t aware that one man ́s waste is another man ́s gold.”

Sometimes the gold is actually animal waste. Cliona explains that fish and fish processing waste can used to make specialty feed for aquaculture feeds, fertilizers for agriculture and home gardening, pharmaceuticals, and industrial products. “Coastal cities pay millions to clean seaweed and algae off of tourist beaches to throw away into landfills. In one case I assisted in the creation of a start up that developed natural, organic beauty products with no raw material cost because it used what mother nature provided freely.”

In working with so many stakeholders, both private and public, Cliona manages the miraculous in bringing everyone together and on the same page, satisfied on all fronts, financially and environmentally. She cites empathy as the essential component to effective leadership and the necessity of leaving your comfort zone to truly understand others. “Putting yourself out there and being forced to adapt and grow in situations that feel strange to you will only help you down the line. Then empathy will be a natural reaction, not a forced one. At the end of the day, any progress comes from humans. Individual commitment is our greatest resource of all and an empathic leader knows and understands people to such a degree it can leverage great results from collective intelligence.”

Mikaela admits some of the greatest challenges in her career involved times of prolonged solitude while conducting research. However, the research can often involve small crews of fellow field biologists living and working together in harsh conditions that test everyone’s ability to adapt and communicate well. What unites them is a shared passion for conducting research in extraordinary places, in spite of giving up time with family and friends for long stretches. Mikaela finds there is a similarity between researching and teaching.

“When you are a scientist/researcher, an important part of your work is sharing your research and informing the science community and public. So, I guess I have always enjoyed teaching at some level. The teaching I do now is fulfilling because I feel grateful to be able to share my knowledge with the next generation and maybe pass along some of my enthusiasm as well. Teaching also poses the added challenge of learning how to connect with younger people and tap into their diverse abilities to learn.”

There is another side to Mikaela’s talent for connecting with the world in meaningful ways. “I think a lot of analytical minds also have a creative side,” she says, “and these two parts work together to create innovation. Science doesn’t have to be dry and boring. I think it should be exciting and constantly evolving.” In 2013, she was able to join her love of science and art by making a short film during her time living on Aiktak island in the eastern Aleutian islands working on a seabird monitoring project for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Her photography has been on display in Bozeman, where she is also known as DJ Wookie on the local community radio station KGLT for the last three years. Her love of music, according to Mikaela, can be attributed to brother Morgan, who currently lives in Santander where he has a website design business and pursues his interest in music and art as well.

With children of her own now, Cliona is having fun raising them with her English husband, Roo Newton. Always the scientist, she is fascinated by the differences between her academic background and her husband’s. “It is so interesting to compare notes, philosophies, and evaluate how different approaches to childhood development and formal education can play out as you grow older,” she says. “Having had the benefit of a Wellington education, I understand now as a parent so much more about just how privileged I was and at times I wish that I could go back and do it all again, just to make sure I squeezed out every last drop of opportunity that was provided me.”

When asked how they think Wellington prepared for their futures, the Howies mention the academic skills that readied them for college and their professions. Cliona was particularly influenced by the nurturing of critical and analytical thought processes. “Working from a challenge towards a solution whilst taking into account variable elements and factors are, without a doubt, skills that were first cultivated at Wellington,” she says. “Interestingly, I can also assure you that my debate skills were finely honed compared to my college peers, so much so, that I used to make some money on the side helping fellow students prepare their arguments for classes I knew nothing about.” Both are particularly moved by the profound experience of learning and growing in Wellington’s small, supportive community and have returned in recent years to share their insight with current students. Mikaela was a Carol Goldsmith Guest Lecturer in 2013, and Cliona was a guest speaker in the upper school twice in 2016.

Mikaela shares that she always feels welcomed and supported at Wellington and continues to maintain many friendships she made here. “This long standing love and support is so important to get through the hard times in life,” she says. “Wellington’s culture of acceptance and support of diversity also prepared me well to be able to communicate and connect with all sorts of people which is so important, no matter which professional road you take.”

Cliona couldn’t agree more. “More than anything, I look back and realize how the mix of people and individual characters that were attracted to Wellington made it an incredibly special place to spend your formative years,” she says. “So many life lessons that really only made themselves clear to me later on were ones that were initiated by relationships that happened in my years at Wellington.”