Homeward Bound 2017-18: Life and leadership lessons in Antarctica

01 October 2018 - By: Madeline Mitchell

Homeward Bound 2017-18: Life and leadership lessons in Antarctica

Madeline Mitchell
Madeline Mitchell at Neko Harbour in Andvord Bay. Photo: Nicole Fetchet

By Madeline Mitchell

Antarctica was an unlikely place for me to visit considering I’m a plant molecular biologist and physiologist with an interest in agriculture…and perhaps even more unlikely given I treat the cold as a personal affront! And yet, I found myself signing up to spend three weeks on a ship travelling round Antarctica with nearly 80 other women in science for company.

For me, the opportunity to connect with so many inspiring women, to develop my personal and professional skills, and to visit the world’s last remaining wilderness, was too good to pass up. So, I filled my suitcase with thermals, said a fond farewell to my pet plants and travelled to Ushuaia to board the ship and sail south.

I did this as part of Homeward Bound, a year-long leadership initiative that culminates in a three-week intensive program in Antarctica. Running over successive years, the aim is to build a global network of 1000 women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) who can influence policy and decision making as it shapes our planet. I was fortunate to be selected as part of the second cohort of women and to receive travel grants from the Company of Biologists and the SEB Plant Section to support my participation. My employer, CSIRO, was also very supportive and partially funded my participation.

We were a diverse group representing 18 different nationalities and ranging from a first year PhD student to a Nobel prize-winning professor. Although we all had a background in STEMM subjects, we weren’t all academics. We had teachers and social entrepreneurs, doctors, science communicators and self-confessed “policy wonks”. What all of us shared, though, was a passion for the environment, for gender equity, and the belief that we are stronger together.

Homeward Bound seeks to improve the representation of women in leadership positions in STEMM by giving participants personal and leadership development tools, coaching sessions, visibility training and the opportunity to develop meaningful collaborations. However, for me, it was much more than this. We spent three weeks together, learning, growing and exploring away from our usual support networks, creating a unique, immersive environment where we could collaborate and lead collectively. This experiential learning introduced and reinforced the idea that as women in science we didn’t need to change or be “fixed” in order to lead; instead, we set our own ground rules and created new models and definitions of successful leadership.

Half of each day was spent in workshops during which we extended and deepened our understanding of the course content we had been working on for the year leading up to the voyage. For example, using the Life Styles Inventory, we explored our current thinking and behaviour patterns at work and compared these self-identified styles to the patterns our colleagues had identified in us. We could then choose areas to focus on or develop in order to become more constructive colleagues and leaders. Interestingly, for many of us, this involved changing the way we viewed ourselves rather than changing our behaviour, as we discovered we really were our own worst critics. We also developed personal strategy maps based on identifying our values and priorities in the different areas of our lives: for ourselves, our relationships and our work. I found the focus on values shifted my perspective towards thinking about how I wanted to live more than what I wanted to do. I have begun thinking about specific elements of work that I enjoy and that align with my values, which helps me identify options for a fulfilling career other than the traditional academic path. This is reassuring given the uncertainty of a career in scientific research.

Before, during and after the voyage, we had many opportunities to put our training in visibility and communication to use as we did media interviews and engaged with colleagues around issues relating to gender equity and the environment. On the ship, one of the highlights for many of us was listening to each other present snapshots of our careers and research. Not only did this lead to new potential collaborations but it also highlighted the need and scope for multidisciplinary work to help solve the large-scale problems we currently face. Melissa Cano, a French postdoc working in the USA, captured some of this thinking when she suggested we teach “problems of the world” rather than individual subjects. It was energising to see the breadth and depth of creativity on board focused on creating a more equitable and sustainable future. In fact, one of the recurring themes was how creative we scientists can be, not just when solving scientific problems. We had visual artists, dancers, yoga teachers and even a milliner on board who generously shared their expertise.
On board leadership programe
On board leadership program Photo: Oli Sansom

Undertaking all this learning against the stunning backdrop of Antarctica was unique and sometimes distracting, as we spotted whales, penguins and icebergs through the ship’s windows. Fortunately, the other half of each day was spent on land, which gave us plenty of time to explore the beautiful landscapes, take endless photos of ridiculously cute penguins and visit a number of Antarctic bases and research stations.

Antarctica has no First Peoples and yet the influence of humans was sadly apparent. We heard stories of retreating glaciers from the staff at research stations, saw a penguin with its beak caught in a piece of plastic, and learned about the identification and management of humanintroduced invasive species. Due to Antarctica’s special position as a neutral territory dedicated to peace and science, we came away with a sense that we all have a responsibility to advocate for its care and protection.

Many of us have also returned with new insights and focus for our careers as well as numerous new friends we can turn to for encouragement and advice. Since returning home several months ago, I have continued to notice changes as I incorporate more of what I learnt into my daily life. I am more conscious of how my values shape what I look for in my work and I have taken conscious steps to create a better working environment for myself and others. Supported by my Homeward Bound connections, I have had the courage to advocate more actively for inclusion and diversity in my organisation and, thanks to my increased visibility, senior leaders and other colleagues are listening. I continue to be inspired and helped by a wonderful network of Homeward Bounders in my city, at work and around the world. I’m excited for the future, to see our network grow and to see friends and colleagues accepted in the third and fourth cohorts.

If this is something you would like to hear more about, please feel free to email me (madeline.mitchell@csiro.au) or visit: www.homewardboundprojects.com.au

Category: Career Development

Madeline Mitchell

Madeline is a plant molecular physiologist and biotechnologist at CSIRO in Canberra, Australia, working on novel food and fibre crops. Using skills and insights gained from Homeward Bound, she recently won a place in the 2019 Superstars of STEM program, which aims to smash society’s gender assumptions about scientists and increase the public visibility of women in STEM.