Homeward Bound

The setting was the most remote continent in the world. The cast, a group of exceptional women scientists.

Their mission - to change the world.

Photos by Oli Sansom

Photos by Oli Sansom

Surrounded by a broken jigsaw of ice sheets, and with occasional visits from humpback whales, seals and penguins, this was a training programme like no other.

Earlier this year a team of 78 women from around the world took part in a three-week expedition to Antarctica, a trip that marked the culmination of the year-long Homeward Bound leadership programme for women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM).

Among the group of physicists, PhD students, helicopter pilots, a Noble Laureate and government officials, were University of Cambridge researcher Hannah Laeverenz Schlogelhofer, and CamAWISE co-chair Dr Cathy Sorbara.

Both women were determined to take part after being inspired by the stories of previous participants.

“A member of the inaugural expedition, Deborah Pardo from the British Antarctic Survey, spoke about her experience at a CamAWISE event I was chairing,” Cathy explained. “I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do.”

Cathy is the Chief Operating Officer of Cheeky Scientist, an international training programme for newly-qualified academics. She completed her PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology at the Technical University of Munich before moving to Cambridge.

Hannah heard about the programme from a fellow student from her undergraduate course, and followed the first group’s expedition via their posts on Facebook.

She said; “I heard about the scheme and thought, Antarctica; supporting women; science, it combines everything I’m interested in.”

The Homeward Bound initiative aims to build a team of 1,000 women in science from around the world over the next ten years ‘to influence policy and decision-making as it shapes our planet’. The inaugural programme in 2016 was the largest-ever female expedition to Antarctica.

“Antarctica is very significant for women scientists, in a way, because the British Antarctic Survey didn’t allow women to go there until the 1980s,” said Cathy.

“There’s a wall of photographs at Rothera, the British Research Station, showing all the people who worked there each year. As your eyes move along the images you realise that, until you reach the 1990s, all the people in the photographs are men. So the situation is already changing, and I think it will continue to change and eventually we will get there.”

To be accepted onto this highly competitive programme, applicants have to submit their CV, answer a series of questions about their style of leadership, and produce a two-minute elevator pitch about their passion for science and what they can bring to the programme.

“The application process was itself a learning experience,” said Hannah, a PhD candidate in Cambridge’s NanoDTC.

“It was really open and welcoming, and the form even states that they are looking for a huge diversity of women, they want all types of people and all levels of experience. If you’re a woman linked in any way to science you’re eligible.”

“I think if there’s an inkling inside you that thinks this is something for you, then follow that feeling and apply. What I really liked is that Homeward Bound encourages courage not confidence. If other women are considering applying, don’t worry if you’re not particularly confident, just have the courage to step up and put your name down.”

The Homeward Bound participants take part in a year-long online leadership course before the expedition. The programme focuses on leadership development, strategic capability, visibility and science communication, and science collaboration. It involves lectures, coaching sessions, personal and leadership development tools, forum discussions and team collaboration.

“The online course was very introspective, and we learned it’s important to know our own behaviours, our own leadership styles and what we want personally before we can feel more empowered in the world,” Cathy said.

“We did a lifestyle inventory, which is essentially a 360 degree reflection of our leadership beliefs. We then had colleagues and mentors evaluate it to see how they thought we had answered, and that was something we could then evaluate. There was a personal strategy component, where we looked at our own values and then priorities based on those values for ourselves, our relationships and our work, and how that all fits together. We then create a personal strategy map that has a 100 day plan attached to it. So how we would lead or how we would lead better by aligning our values to what we’re currently doing.”

"It’s not just about taking on a leadership role, it’s about helping to define what leadership is."

“I think what Homeward Bound are really trying to do is make sure that we as women don’t just fall into copying leadership styles, but to really define our own style and stay true to that,” Hannah added.

“It’s also important that women are the catalyst for changing how we see leadership. It’s not just about taking on a leadership role, it’s about helping to define what leadership is.

“The programme builds up to the intensive three weeks in Antarctica, where a lot of the content is brought together on the ship and you have space to truly reflect on aspects of the programme, so personal strategy, visibility, coaching and mentoring.

"We became kind of a collective. There were no cliques or groups, you could sit down anywhere at dinnertime and know that you were sitting next to a friend and have a really fascinating conversation about leadership or some obscure kind of sponge, or gravitational waves.

“It was amazing to have such a diverse range of conversations, which is reflective of the diversity within the group.”

During the 12-month course the participants form groups to focus on important issues like climate change, plastic pollution and energy transition. On the ship each group delivered a presentation, and put together a communications piece based on their work.

Cathy’s group talked about climate change, and produced a report on the best ways to communicate about this subject to different audiences, from a school assembly to politicians. They are also creating a document to share with politicians in the countries they are currently living in, about where they feel the focus needs to be in terms of climate change.

Hannah’s group looked at renewable energy and energy transition, and are working on a social media campaign to encourage people to make a pledge to move energy transition forward. They are also working on making a video to highlight the benefits to the environment of buying electric cars, eating less meat or switching to a renewable energy supplier.

During the voyage all of the participants delivered a three-minute 'Symposium at Sea', sharing their work and interests in a bid to foster collaborations with the other scientists. The team also visited the Argentinian, British, Chinese and American research stations, and met with people working in the field.

“It was quite interesting, at the American base they were saying there’s a lot less ice in that area than there was when the base was originally built, and talked about how migration patterns of the animals have changed since they’ve been there,” Cathy said.

“And some of them told us that there’s already a lot more women here than there were before. So it was encouraging to hear how much things have already changed.”

The experience of living on the ship and travelling through Antarctica was also eye-opening.

“The scenery is breathtaking,” said Cathy.  “It’s hard to put into words, because there’s nothing to show the scale of what you see. We would be sat on the ship and an enormous iceberg would float by, which was probably the height of a five-storey building but of course there’s nothing around you to compare it to.

“It’s actually incredibly colourful, between the different shades of blue depending on how compact the ice is, to the greens and the reds of the algae, and then all of the animals. And I never realised there could be so many different shades of white.

“It was also very surreal to be sitting on deck and all of a sudden an ice sheet with a seal lying on it would float past, or a humpback whale would come up out of the water, and you realise that this is your new normal for the next few weeks.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so present in an event before. As there were no distractions it was very different to a typical conference”

“There was one point when we were on our way back from our southernmost point, and the sea ice had begun to freeze, which created quite a maze for us. So over the space of 12 hours we had only travelled five nautical miles and looking back, that was pretty hairy, but at the time we were all saying ‘this is super cool, look at all the ice sheets!’

"You could hear crashes when the ice sheets hit the boat. And we weren’t on an ice-breaker, it was just a double-barrelled ship that wasn’t built to handle great blocks of ice. And I kept thinking, ‘is this normal?...  I’m sure they know what they’re doing."

Hannah said; “The Captain had to navigate really cleverly, when you looked back you couldn’t even see the path we had come, because the ice had frozen over again.

“So we were literally enclosed by white, and it was a cloudy snowy day anyway so the ship had turned white.

“I think we were lucky to have such an experienced captain because he was able to use the ship in ways that he hadn’t used the ship before, he said afterwards that he had to go back and forth to navigate the ship, rather than break the ice, so we basically pushed the ice to one side so that we could push our way through.”

Both women are keen to share their experience with others, and continue to encourage other women into STEMM. Hannah gave a presentation to girls at her former high school before she went on the expedition, and will return later in the year to talk about her experiences.

She is also part of Connecting Waves, a global dance film project, a montage of dancers from around the world performing a sequence that was inspired by Homeward Bound.

She said; “I can often feel overwhelmed with just the huge challenges that we face in terms of global security, climate change, race and I think as an individual that can feel like just too much.

"Meeting all these women who are tackling these issues in their own way and in different fields, it kind of takes the pressure off you as an individual and puts the pressure onto us as a collective.

"That has been quite a powerful experience for me and has given me a bit more freedom in deciding where I want to place my energies and my skills, so it’s kind of shifted how I see how I can contribute.”

Cathy said “We formed a really tight-knit group of women. I now have this network of women who will encourage me, who will support me, who will lift me up at every stage of my career, and that’s incredibly powerful.

"I know that I have women in Australia, in New Zealand, North America and Africa that I can reach out to and collaborate with. Also, it made me feel a sense of empowerment that I can go out and do these things.

"As the Homeward Bound motto says; you're stronger together with these women behind you."

Follow photographer Oli Sansom on Instagram: @olisansom