Mark W. Moffett and Melissa Wells have dedicated their lives to exploring the world and facilitating educational conversations.
By Jennifer Walker-Journey
As curators of Sea Island’s Creativity Conferences, Mark W. Moffett and Melissa Wells bring some of the most inspiring visionaries from diverse backgrounds to the resort each year to share their stories with members and guests. Here, we look at why this husband-and-wife exploration duo is just as fascinating as the experts they recruit.
After spending two days dragging a dugout canoe up a semiparched river in the hot and humid Colombian rain forest, with his legs so blistered from sunburn that he was “walking like Frankenstein,” Moffett finally reached the remote habitat of the world’s deadliest frog. The poison from one frog could kill several hundred people.
He wrapped his legs in plastic to protect his open sores, grabbed his camera and relied on a companion to lower him belly-first onto the ground with his camera lens a pinky’s length away from the deadly, bright yellow creature. With each curious hop that the frog took toward Moffett, his companion would lift and drag him back far enough to stay out of reach, but close enough to get the shot.
Though it sounds intense, he simply couldn’t resist. Moffett, who is also known as Doctor Bugs, or the Indiana Jones of Entomology, as dubbed by National Geographic, works as a research biologist with the Smithsonian Institute as well as a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Department of Human Evolution, and a contract writer and photographer for National Geographic magazine. In short, he’s passionate about bugs.
And Moffett is as curious a creature as the insects and animals he studies, whether he is accidentally sitting on one of the world’s deadliest snakes—the fer-de-lance—while working in Peru, or recording a botfly maggot emerging from the top of his hand after spending 10 weeks embedded in his skin.
“I guess I get into a lot of battles with small critters,” he says. “I’ve never been seriously bitten by anything; most small creatures respect me. I like to think I know how to handle them without getting hurt. It’s a skill I have had since I was in diapers.”
Moffett’s fascination began with watching ants as a child in Salida, Colorado. Bored with high school, he dropped out at age 16, continued to explore the outdoors and was later admitted to Beloit College in Wisconsin. He became captivated with “The Insect Societies,” a comprehensive study of social insects written by the acclaimed biologist, naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson, and went on to receive his Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University under Wilson’s tutelage.
Moffett has since traveled the world to study a variety of new species and behaviors. “I hunt to tell stories about them,“ he says. His desire to spin tales of his discoveries is what led him to learn photography and writing, as well. His work, which features the world’s most exotic insects and animals, has been featured in National Geographic magazine, and he has published several popular books. He has also been a guest on television shows like “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Not only has Moffett been awarded The Explorers Club’s Lowell Thomas Award, he has also received Harvard’s Bowdoin Prize for his writing and recognition from World Press Photo for his photography.
“I’m a biologist first and foremost,” Moffett says, noting that he longs to share his adventures. “Life is about stories. I’ve found that if you can get people emotionally connected to the stories, it makes them fall in love with nature in ways they don’t expect.”
Melissa Wells traveled extensively as a consultant for health care systems both in the United States and abroad, but nothing could prepare her for the turn her life would take when she met Moffett. The man was always on the move, traveling to remote areas and getting up close and personal with unusual bugs and amphibians. On their third date, she pulled him aside and said, “I have no framework for this, no idea how your life works.”
So, he showed her. He took her to Cambodia, where he planned to photograph weaver ants for National Geographic magazine. And because he couldn’t film himself talking about the ants, Wells took charge. She filmed him standing outside Angkor Wat, his attention focused not on the famous 12th century temple, but on a tree outside covered in nests of orange and red weaver ants. His commentary about the tiny creatures was frequently (and comically) interrupted by gasps when one would bite him and inject its stinging acid.
Wells held a steady frame as Moffett explained how the ants were an important part of Cambodian cuisine, and even partook in a local village’s feast of duck omelets with ant larvae. Then, she filmed Moffett offering tastes of the Cambodian delicacy to tourists who passed by. The video landed Moffett his first TV spots, and launched a side career for Wells of capturing scientific research through photography and film. The video later received the Reader’s Choice award for Best Science Video from Scientist Magazine, and was chosen as one of the must-see science videos by NBCnews.com.
Since then, Wells has accompanied Moffett on dozens of other trips around the world. “There’s never a dull moment—I’ve learned to expect the unexpected,” she says. Even when their work requires them to “sit still for hours on top of a mountain in the pouring rain and the freezing cold waiting for a particular bird species to land upon a flower.”
Wells now works full time managing health care systems, where she derives great joy from interacting with people and discovering how their lives are impacted by the care they receive. She finds the duality of living in New York City when she’s not traveling the world serves her well. “I love being in New York with its theater and good food, but it’s just as easy to hop onto a plane and be in a field in some remote place,” she says.
Moffett promised Wells he would never let her get bored. And when they decided to marry in January 2008, they did so with the same sense of adventure—at the rim of the Rano Kau volcano on Easter Island, overlooking the crater and the sea. The Easter Island governor arranged for a traditional Rapa Nui-style ceremony, for which they were each stripped down, had their bodies painted and then, despite the freezing cold, were scantily clothed in animal pelts and feather headdresses. Following the ceremony, the couple and their guests joined tribal dancers in celebration. “No one had any preconceived expectations about the way the ceremony should go,” she recalls. “We were jumping up and down and yelling and having tons of fun. It was
The Creativity Conference
In 2013, Moffett was invited to Sea Island as part of the resort’s National Geographic Live lecture series to talk about two of his favorite subjects: ants and frogs. He also made time to take kids on insect adventures around the property. During that visit, Moffett and Wells learned that Sea Island was trying to organize a TED-like conference series offering members and guests an opportunity to engage with top minds and innovators from the arts, sciences and media. They immediately offered to help. After all, they knew a lot of interesting people who loved to tell stories about their work.
The first Sea Island Creativity Conference was held in March 2014, and Wells and Moffett served as curators of the two-day event. They both also served as speakers alongside experts such as David Hume Kennerly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who was later appointed as President Gerald Ford’s personal White House cameraman; Dr. Kenneth Kamler, an orthopedic microsurgeon who practices extreme medicine in some of the most remote regions on Earth, and the only doctor who was high up on Mount Everest during the infamous 1996 storm that killed 12 climbers; and Robert Wilson, who received a Nobel Prize in Physics for his co-discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation that proved the big-bang theory.
One of the aspects that is unique about the Creativity Conferences is that Wells and Moffett carefully select the speakers from various disciplines who not only know their craft, but are approachable in order to ensure the overall vibe is both relaxed and intimate. “It’s important for us to have a mix of folks who can interact well [with the members and guests],” Wells says.
The reward of such an effort paid off immediately. “During the first conference, when all the speakers gathered in The Cloister’s back patio in the evening and talked, we realized that we had bonded as a group over three days. It made the experience more intimate and meaningful,” Moffett recalls. “And what made that moment even better was that the Sea Island members and guests felt comfortable joining in on the conversation.”
Unlike TED talks, these sessions are not recorded, which gives speakers an opportunity to talk more openly with guests. For example, Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobot, showed photos of the first robot he made when he was a kid. That robot ended up being the forerunner to the Roomba vacuum cleaner, a device that uses sensors to allow it to navigate the floor area of a home and clean it without human assistance.
Another pivotal moment occurred during the 2017 event, when Patricia Wright, a MacArthur Fellowship grant winner and primatologist, announced that she had discovered three new species of lemurs while conducting research in Madagascar. “In the science world, it is a big deal to share, with the public, information that had never before been published,” Wells explains.
Serving as curators for the conference “is really a labor of love for us,” Wells says. “It’s not unusual for us to get together with groups of people—experts in their fields—to share stories and interact. So, in essence, the Creativity Conference is really an extension of what we do in our normal lives.”
Meet the Innovators who spoke at the Creativity Conference at Sea Island in 2019.
Visual artist, vocalist, songwriter and director who is renowned for her
One of the most prolific, frequently cited psychologists in the world
With his brother, he has written, produced and directed Academy Award-winning films
Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, author and poet
Theoretical physicist focused on particle physics and cosmology; Nobel Prize winner for contributions to the unified theory
Naturalist, artist and outdoorsman who has made major contributions to ecology
One of the most accomplished scholars regarding human origins; discovered the 3.2-million-year-old “Lucy” skeleton
Former senior computer scientist at NASA; director of research at Google
Official White House photographer under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama; former director of the White House Photography Office
Bestselling novelist and writer of children’s books and memoirs
Emeritus chair of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence); TED Prize winner