I have some news I haven’t shared with too many people yet: One year from today, I will be crossing the Drake Passage on my way to the Antarctic Peninsula with a group of about 80 other women scientists from around the world. It will be the culmination of a year-long professional program for women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine) called Homeward Bound. How cool is that?
Homeward Bound is a major, not-for-profit initiative to equip 1000 women scientists over 10 years with skills in leadership and strategic decision-making in the context of global climate change science. The goals are not only to help women understand themselves as leaders, but also to help them understand how they can have a greater impact together – and then strategize ways to have an impact – to help nudge the world back onto a more sustainable path. My program starts online next month, and culminates in a 3-week expedition to Antarctica, sailing from Ushuaia, Argentina on December 31, 2018. My group will be the third cohort to go through the program.
A bit ambitious? Probably. But right up my alley.
My work in Ecuador – both my Fulbright in 2015, and the trip I led with students this past August – have clarified somethings for me about the work I do that means the most to me, and the focus of my career. I applied to Homeward Bound this fall because it aligns so clearly with my values: collaborative leadership, environmental activism, setting aside time for creativity and reflection, developing a global community of female scientists, finding ways to support and encourage women in science, connecting with others to work on projects that advance our understanding of science and how that science is perceived in the world. Not to mention the pull toward adventure – toward shared adventure.
And let’s face it, we’ve got some major problems to deal with here on Earth. We need new ways to think about them – and that is the impetus behind Homeward Bound. The fact that the world’s most powerful leader could brush off global warming just because it’s a cold winter’s day is just the beginning. I’m guessing many U.S. congressmen could not pass my intro meteorology exam – and not always because they’re ignorant (although, some have clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that they are). Stubborn willfulness has infected our government at just the point when the tidal wave of climate change – the one we’ve been anticipating for decades – is breaking over our heads.
The antidote? Let’s inoculate and arm, on a global scale, Millennials, Centennials, and all the generations coming after them, with science and reason. Let’s find a way to empower them with a voice that will rise in support of protecting our environment. After all, it’s their future we’ve screwed up.
How do we do that best? That’s what I’m trying to figure out – and I’m hoping to build new connections and collaborations in the process, through all the work I’ve done and work I continue to do: my Fulbright, leading students abroad, my every-day teaching, and now Homeward Bound.
And what does Antarctica have to do with all this?
The poles are a bellwether for the rest of the planet. It’s cold in the polar regions because they are always losing heat – there’s just not enough energy from the sun each summer to make them warm. BUT, ice plays a big role as well. Ice reflects a lot of energy, and keeps things cooler than it would be otherwise. If the ice melts, open ocean water and exposed land surfaces will absorb more energy and warm up. This is happening right now, as average global temperature creeps up, and this has an effect on global weather patterns (the location of ice has an influence on the jet stream, which directs storms).
Seeing first-hand the effects of climate and environmental change is a powerful motivator for action (as I’ve touched on in my posts about traveling with students to Ecuador). The idea behind Homeward Bound is that the isolation and unique environment of Antarctica will serve the backdrop and inspiration for new ideas and collaborative projects that have an impact.
An all-female journey to Antarctica is also, in many ways, a statement about the role of women in the world and in science. Antarctica is an inhospitable place for most humans – but women working in Antarctica have faced the challenges of an inhospitable culture as well as the challenges of the physical climate. (U.S. Congress actually had a ban on women working in Antarctica until 1969!) The Homeward Bound journey is about claiming our authority and our voices as women in science – while observing a part of the world that is especially sensitive to the changes that are happening right now. It’s also about inspiring other women to stand up and take action to protect the world, in whatever way they can.
What draws me, personally, to Antarctica?
Going to Antarctica was never really on my ‘life list’. It always seemed so remote. Off limits. Cold and gray. Expensive. I would dream, instead, about going to Thailand, or Spain, or Patagonia.
But it’s not out of character for me to be called to someplace so remote. When I was a kid, the only place I really dreamed of going was the moon. I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. I know that being born in the midst of the Apollo missions had an impact on me. My Mom had taken a newspaper clipping of the Apollo landing and pasted it with Modge Podge on a large piece of wood. That piece hung for years in my brother’s room.
I wanted to be an explorer. I wanted to go to some place far, far away – where few people go. I was enticed by such barren, forbidding places, such as the Moon, or Mars. The thought of being confined to a capsule of a spaceship didn’t bother me until I was much older. At some point, the longing to go into space dissipated at the realization that I’m prone to claustrophobia and really can’t live without fresh air and wide open spaces. But that urge to go some place empty and far away has never really left me.
Traveling to Antarctica is not as remote a possibility as it once was. All through the Southern Hemisphere summer, there are weekly cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia. Argentina. Something about the thought of taking one of these routine tours to Antarctica was never appealing to me – but to go with a group of like-minded women scientists? To go on a trip where there are boundless opportunities to make connections, new friends, and new international partnerships? Not to mention opportunities for pursuing new directions in science and teaching? To raise the voice of women scientists in this world? This is a dream.
In terms of my career, and the hopes I have for the best way I can continue to make a contribution in this world, there is no better time for me to do something like this than right now. My life and my work have been shifting. I spent so many years trying to prove myself, just trying to publish just enough science to survive academia. I tried to fit into the science world. I was sort of successful. But I’ve also learned from that experience that I don’t like working alone. I want a team. I love doing science – and teaching science – but I want to do it as a collaborative effort. We’re better that way. Unfortunately, that’s not how academia works. So I suppose I hope to nudge it in a new direction, in whatever small way I can.
“Mother Nature needs her daughters” is the Homeward Bound slogan. I admit that theme is a draw for me on a more personal level as well. Because I have no children of my own, and my opportunity for that has long passed by, I sometimes feel the urgency of being the last in a long, long line of daughters that stretches back through time. I feel the urgency to do all the things that my mother and her mother and her mother before would have liked to do – or couldn’t have even imagined they would do. I feel as though I’m trying to pull together generations of wisdom, their lives and the little bits of themselves that they passed on to me, and try to figure out how to do something positive in the world with it.
I not only feel the urgency, but I feel the privilege of being able to do all the things that they could not do: have a long career, own a house, travel to the corners of the world. I’m so lucky to have been born when and where and who I was, to be able to have a voice in this world.
When I step foot on Antarctica for the first time, I can imagine all my mothers will be with me. Every one of them, going far, far back in time. But especially my Mom. In some ways, I could feel her nudging me to apply for this expedition. In the same way that she now nudges me to write a little every day. I carry all of my mothers with me – but I carry more of her than anyone else. And when I walk in a new place, I like to think there is a big piece of her that will walk alongside me, that will walk inside me. She would have gone to Antarctica, if she had had the opportunity. I love the thought that she will step onto this new continent with me.
For more information:
Read about Homeward Bound on their website
Article in Australian ABC network
Article in Forbes Magazine
Article on CNN