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Chantell Murphy films from atop an SUV in New Mexico

Who We Are — Meet Dr. Chantell Murphy, a Rock-Climbing Nuclear Nonproliferation Expert and Filmmaker, and Creative Capsule Year One Resident

Over the eight-month residency, a personal quandary about the links between the outdoor community and nuclear weapons evolved into a documentary film project.

Words: Molly Hurley

Although rock climbing and nuclear nonproliferation seem totally unrelated on the surface, Dr. Chantell Murphy, a nuclear engineer currently based in New Mexico with over a decade of experience in both rock climbing and nuclear safeguards, has been working to uncover hidden connections between these far-flung fields. In fact, she’s even founded a whole organization, Atomsphere, focused on exploring these intersections between the outdoors and nuclear weapons. Then enter the Creative Capsule Residency, where Chantell has spent the last eight months digging deeper than ever into the relationships between her climbing world and her nuclear work. And now she’s making a film! 

While some aspects of her evolution have surprised her, in a way, this was perhaps always meant to be, given that her primary work has such a strong focus on ethics and inclusivity within nonproliferation. Combining her M.S. in health physics from Georgetown and her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of New Mexico, she now helps design ethical artificial intelligence frameworks for nuclear verification. 

So, given my own fixation on unexpected connections as seen in my column The Mixed-Up Files of Inkstick Media, it should be no surprise how quickly my conversation with Chantell unearthed a number of parallels between the nature of working in the nuclear space and the nature of New Mexico’s incredible climbing crags.

Chantell Murphy Rock Climbing in New Mexico

Molly: So, the obvious icebreaker is, of course, tell me a little bit about yourself.

Chantell: So, I’m a human… who lives in New Mexico. I have a dog named Samson, I’m recently engaged, I love to rock climb, ski, and travel, and I’ve worked in nuclear nonproliferation since 2010. I’ve been at DOE and NNSA [Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration] sites for most of that time plus a little time spent in academia for my Postdoc at Stanford. My technical or educational background is in physics and nuclear engineering, but I’ve been trying to bridge this techno-socio-landscape in nonproliferation for my whole career.

Molly: I guess that easily segues us into the usual follow-up: How did you get into the nuclear space? 

Chantell: I think ultimately it was a fellowship. Anytime someone offers to pay for your degree, that’s a good selling point. But there wasn’t anything like an, “Oh, this topic is really important” moment. I was looking for grad school programs, and I wanted to do more research. Then, I found a fellowship that’d pay for a Master’s if you just did a project on nonproliferation. And the rest is kind of history. This space sucks you in. 

Molly: That’s similar to my experience of entering this field! There are no little tourist stops into this issue. But you mentioned rock climbing and I know you also incorporated that into your project with the Creative Capsule Residency. How long have you been involved in that sport and was including rock climbing a part of your original intentions coming into the residency? 

Chantell: I started around 2010. I think I tried it out at the local gym, liked it, then a couple years later I met some other grad students who were going out and they invited me to go and…

Molly: And again, the rest is history!

Chantell: And then it sucks you in…! But I’ve been working on the Atomsphere project for a few years, and it’s gone through a lot of iterations. I started with NSquare with the goal to identify and then bridge this gap between nuclear communities and outdoor recreation communities. And the big picture desire is to talk about these unseen connections in compelling and interesting ways. Like sometimes there’s just weird stuff, such as these nuclear otters off the coast of Oregon and Washington. But I applied for the Creative Capsule residency with a desire to continue the project that I started at NSquare. And I didn’t have a grand, artistic vision going in, but through all the conversations with the team and various mentors over the course of this program, we landed on focusing on Los Alamos National Laboratory since it’s the original site where the bombs were built and close to where the first bomb was dropped. And the climbing around here is amazing but not a lot of people know about it. 

Molly: Did you have any experience in filmmaking and cinematography before this? 

Chantell: This whole residency was a big learning curve, even just in the sense of running with a creative idea! It’s a weirdly vulnerable activity with a lot of challenges. So no, I had no background in film, cinematography, or even storytelling for that matter. Film treatments, outlines, budgeting, and production scheduling (which is still a little bit out there for me) was all super new. And one particular challenge was just coming to terms with the fact that it was a good idea to center a story around me. And having a vision of what I want the film to be about has been difficult, too. Just because it’s… well, why is it difficult!? I guess I don’t know what it’s gonna turn into. It’s just this vague idea and questions about rock climbing near nuclear sites. How did rock climbing even develop here? Did people know that the nuclear weapons lab was here this whole time? Which came first? Have people always been going to this area? 

Film Still of "Projecting Y"

Molly: Do you feel like this has been one of your first opportunities to really go deep into the creative process? To just go bananas on creativity, say whatever you think no matter how wild you think it might sound and trust that the rest of your cohort and mentors will reel you in if they need to or they might even encourage you to take it further. Is this your first experience with that? 

Chantell: For sure this is! It’s very uncomfortable…

Molly: I always like to cite this quote about “the excruciating pain of being known.” But there’s a second half that finishes it off with “the rewards of being loved.” So, who else do you have in your community that you can share these moments with? Whose stories do you feel passionate about sharing alongside your own in your film?

Chantell: I have lots of ideas of people, but I haven’t yet filmed them. But for example, there’s this one guy, a local from Albuquerque. He is a guide, a rock climber, and runs this youth program to get Mexican and native New Mexican kids outside and on the rocks all over both Mexico and New Mexico. Very cool! But then as a native New Mexican himself, he has lots of ideas about the lab. 

And there’s another woman who wrote the book, Nuclear Nuevo Mexico. And she talks more directly about native New Mexicans who were impacted by Los Alamos. So, her story might be less outdoor-focused, but definitely place-focused, providing a definite thread between the two. 

Molly: Okay. I got you. So that sounds like the next steps for this project after the residency ends?

Chantell: Yeah, the end game is to get funding and to make the film. I am currently putting together an advisory board, talking to filmmakers and videographers, and finalizing my pitch. And then will hopefully go make the film.  

Molly: Oh my God, what a badass sabbatical that could be!

Chantell: It would be amazing.

Keep up with Chantell’s work through Instagram @atomsphr

Join us on September 14, 2023, at Noon Eastern to hear directly from Chantell and other year one CCR residents at the Creative Capsule Residency Showcase! Register here.

Learn more about the Creative Capsule Residency here.

Molly Hurley


Molly Hurley is a recent MFA in Community Arts graduate from Maryland Institute College of Art. She has previously spent time as a Wagoner Fellow from Rice University, Nuclear Fellow with The Prospect Hill Foundation, FutureFirst Fellow with Beyond the Bomb, and Communications Associate with Women Cross DMZ. In between her ever-growing anime watchlist and full-time work with WombWork Productions, she arguably spends too much time consuming social media but justifies it through her contributions to Inkstick’s culture column The Mixed Up Files of Inkstick Media. She has also published multiple articles with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and serves as a youth advisor for The Prospect Hill Foundation’s nuclear committee.


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