Antarctica is a land of breathtaking beauty, with dramatic landscapes that have inspired generations of scientists.
It is also one of the most dangerous places in the world, and the backdrop for Homeward Bound, a groundbreaking leadership, strategic and science initiative for women.
The program organisers have gathered 76 women with science backgrounds from around the world to undertake a year-long program to develop their leadership and strategic capabilities.
The culmination of the inaugural year will be the largest all-female expedition to Antarctica, which will set sail from Ushuaia in Argentina on December 2 and return on December 21.
Homeward Bound is the brainchild of Tasmanian research scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas and Australian leadership activist Fabian Dattner.
The pair met about two years ago, and discussed the role of women in science, the lack of women in senior leadership roles within the scientific community and the absence of women’s voices in decision-making.
From their first conversation a dream was born – to take a group of female scientists to Antarctica as part of a transformational leadership program.
“Our group of 76 women have been connecting with each other over the course of the last year and working on particular projects that range from engagement of families in Homeward Bound … through to education outreach in schools,” Dr Melbourne-Thomas said.
“There’s a project working on women in leadership of transdisciplinary science projects and they have been working hard on those different elements.”
Leadership growth and development is one part of the program, which is structured into three sections.
“They will also learn about the science around global change and what Antarctica can tell us about that and the third element is about strategy implementation and the participants have already been receiving elements of that program in advance of the voyage,” Dr Melbourne-Thomas said.
About half of the participants are Australian scientists and all of the women taking part have varied areas of research.
The voyage includes ecologists, geologists, an astronomer, climate scientists, and even a social scientist.
The women are all at different stages of their careers - from someone who has just completed their undergraduate degree to women at the top of their chosen field.
“We haven’t intended for Antarctica to be the focus, it’s the frame in which the process can take place … [and] we hope for it to be a 10-year outreach initiative to build a bigger network that could support each other in having a larger voice in leadership and actually starting to make a difference.”
Six Tasmanian scientists are participants on the voyage, which will also be supported on-board by Hobart-based researcher Dr Mary-Anne Lea.
Dr Lea is one Homeward Bound’s three science program coordinators, along with Dr Melbourne-Thomas and the University of Queensland’s Dr Justine Shaw.
She is the deputy head of the Ecology and Biodiversity Centre at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, and will deliver information about global change and climate science throughout the trip.
“[We] specialise in different areas of research, so I’m a marine zoologist and I study the ecology of marine species such as seals and seabirds, so I know a lot about the live systems and ecosystems linkages in the Southern Ocean,” Dr Lea said.
“Justine is more of a terrestrial ecologist, and has been studying the effects of climate change on terrestrial ecosystems and the introduction of invasive species with tourism science programs and how to mediate those impacts in Antarctica.
“The program will very quickly bring [the participants] up to speed in terms of the global science which is assessing physical processes and ecological interactions around the planet, with Antarctica as a case study.”
University of Tasmania senior sociology lecturer Dr Meredith Nash is taking part in the program, but is also using the opportunity to study the initiative’s effectiveness.
As a gender-researcher Dr Nash hopes to learn what the women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) think about leadership.
“I’m following 25 of the 76 women who are going on the boat for the next couple of years to understand how the program impacts their lives,” she said.
Dr Nash has interviewed participants ahead of the voyage, and has asked the 25 women taking part in her study to record video diaries each day documenting their experiences.
“I’m doing everything that the women are doing on the boat, but while I am there I will be writing field notes and doing observations,” she said.
“I plan to follow up with them a year to a year and a half after we return, to see how they have been using the skills that they have learnt on Homeward Bound and also how their working lives have changed as a result of doing the program.”
Applications for Homeward Bound’s next departure in 2018 open in January, but organisers say there are already hundreds of women wait-listed for the second program.