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Scientists rise to the challenge on Antarctic adventure
Homeward Bound program develops female scientists’ leadership skills and fosters collaborations
Two University of Wollongong academics who travelled by ship to Antarctica as part of a year-long leadership development course for female scientists didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to put their leadership skills to the test.
Environmental scientist Dr Sarah Hamylton and medical researcher Rachelle Balez embarked on a three-week voyage to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica as part of Homeward Bound, a groundbreaking leadership, strategic and science initiative for women.
Homeward Bound aims to increase the influence of female scientists and develop their leadership, strategic and communication skills in order to shape policy and decision-making as it affects our planet. It also aims to establish a global community of scientists and foster collaborations between them.
One of the planned highlights for the 80 women on board was a visit to Rothera Research Station, a British Antarctic base on Adelaide Island. However, as they approached the base they found their planned route through the sheltered Buchanan Passage cut off by sea ice.
The expedition members had to make a decision. One option was to take the long way around, through a rough stretch of ocean, knowing it would mean 24-hours on a wildly pitching ship and lengthy bouts of seasickness for many of those on board. The other option was to abandon the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of a visit to Rothera and spend the time exploring the more tranquil waters of Crystal Sound.
“There was a complete spectrum of opinion about what we should do,” said Ms Balez, a PhD student with UOW’s Faculty of Science Medicine and Health and Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI), who is researching the molecular causes of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Some thought we should push on to Rothera, some didn’t want to go, and some weren’t much fussed either way. Some people who wanted to go empathised with those who were anxious about it and felt other people’s discomfort was more important than their own desire to go to Rothera.”
While a majority voted in favour of pressing on, enough people expressed enough discomfort with the idea to change the plan, said Dr Hamylton, a geographer in UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences whose work includes modelling the effects of climate change on coral reefs. “It was a profound leadership and developmental experience,” Dr Hamylton said.
Wildlife encountered on the expedition included orcas, humpback and minke whales, and several species of seals and penguins. Pictures: Rachelle Balez
“We talked about it for the entire trip afterwards; we are all still processing it. “A lot of us were deeply disappointed, but then the following morning we were jumping into inflatable boats and chasing orcas around and thinking, ‘actually, it doesn't matter that we’re not going to Rothera because we're having this amazing formative moment together’.”
As it turned out, they were still able to visit Rothera as a break in the weather meant the ocean voyage would be relatively smooth sailing. Being thrown into a situation where they had to put their leadership and communication skills to use – and then have the opportunity to analyse and workshop the experience – was one of the reasons for including the Antarctica voyage in the Homeward Bound program.
“You can’t recreate that experience in a workshop on a university campus,” Dr Hamylton said. “You don't have to go looking for adventure in Antarctica; it comes to you pretty quickly and pretty easily.”
In fact, the expedition had several other adventures during its three-week voyage. Along with close encounters with wildlife (including orcas, humpback and minke whales, and many types of seal, penguin and seabirds) the ship almost became ice-bound after they left Rothera.
“It was kind of an adventure unfolding; you could see the captain was beyond his comfort zone,” Dr Hamylton said. “He had to learn to manoeuvre our ship in a way he never had before. I was thinking, ‘well maybe our trip is about to be extended by a week’. Another ship did have to be rescued not long after we’d gone through.”
“You don't have to go looking for adventure in Antarctica; it comes to you pretty quickly and pretty easily” - Dr Sarah Hamylton. Pictures: Rachelle Balez
Inspired by their experiences, Dr Hamylton and Ms Balez have already begun using the skills they developed through the program – in their own careers, to help other women scientists, and to bring scientific issues into the public debate.
“A lot of the peer-coaching techniques we learnt I'm already using in my day-to-day life,” Ms Balez said. “We applied these skills to ourselves first to make sure we were coming from a clear point of navigation so that you’re in a strong position to help others go through their journey. It’s all about helping others to see their abilities and solve their own problems rather than just saying this is what I think should happen.”
Ms Balez says these tools will be highly valuable in her role as Chair of the Student Body Committee for the Australasian Neuroscience Society.
Both women have also started working on projects initiated during the voyage. Ms Balez is part of a group looking to raise sponsorship money to make the Homeward Bound program more accessible to women from the developing world. Another group is looking at gender diversity and at how to hold industries, workplaces and politicians accountable.
Dr Hamylton, an active council member of the Australian Coral Reef Society for several years, is planning a project with a fellow researcher she met on board to map the genetic characteristics of bacteria on coral reefs, with a view to exploring their resilience to coral bleaching.
Ms Balez and Dr Hamylton have also begun a project working together with participants from the Western Australian Museum to develop a collaboration between scientists and artists that brings user-friendly science to the public.
“Homeward Bound is a world-class leadership development program, and collectively it is going to pay dividends through the work of the women who take part, over the next year, two years, five years and onwards,” Dr Hamylton said.
UNI IN THE BREWERY (AT iACCELERATE)
Dr Hamylton and Ms Balez will present a public “Uni in the Brewery” talk, Women as science leaders: A voyage to Antarctica and beyond, reflecting on their Homeward Bound experiences, what they learned about themselves, and how it will influence their future careers.
Following strong interest in the talk, it has been moved from the Brewery to the iAccelerate foyer to accommodate a larger audience.
UOW PhD student Claudia Kielkopf, who is currently raising funds to participate in Homeward Bound 2019, will also speak and will provide background on the program.
When: 5.30pm – 6.30pm, Wednesday, 11 April 2018
Where: iAccelerate foyer, WIN Stadium, Innovation Campus, Squires Way, North Wollongong