Within a historic trip to Antarctica, a crew of over 100 female scientists

Since 2007, Michaela Musilová has dreamed of visiting Antarctica.

As an astronomer, she has two goals: To identify the limits of life on Earth and to assess the possibility that life as we know it exists in other parts of the world. Researching how life behaves in the extreme environment of Antarctica is essential to her work; microbes that manage to survive in the frozen environment at the end of our world could teach us a lot about their potential beyond Earth, too. Over the years, Musilová has tried a dozen times to sail to the southernmost continent, but it never worked out.

It wasn’t that her mission suggestions were lacking, she says.

“Unfortunately, most of the time it happened because an older male colleague or professor didn’t want to let me go or took my place,” she said in an interview with Space.com.

Women have only worked in Antarctica since the late 1970s, and before that officially banned by countries that have organized research programs on the continent. Apparently, “the rigors of the continent were too much for the women and the rigors of providing separate bathroom facilities were too much for the program administrators.” On his 12th attempt, the analog astronaut and former director of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat now aboard a cruise ship on its way to Antarctica eventually, and more than 100 women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Related: Satellites reveal a disastrous year for emperor penguins amid the climate crisis in Antarctica

During the trip and while they are on the Antarctic ice, this trip is designed to encourage each of these women on a journey towards becoming empowered scientists, in an environment where they feel safe and heard them.

“I love the idea of ​​having this global network of women to work with, to help each other, to encourage each other,” said Musilová, adding that working on her leadership skills also inspires her to reach new heights. to create for women and girls. involved in STEMM fields.

“Together, we have a network of support and training around many of the common challenges that women have to deal with in general, but especially in the STEMM fields as well,” she continued, “whether it’s discrimination, harassment, bias that is – all those very negative. things – to fit in, to be able to have a family and still maintain a career, which women tend to have to deal with more than men.”

Leaders in astronomy tackling climate change

The journey now underway has gathered early, middle and senior women climate researchers, medical doctors, ecologists, civil engineers as well as a handful of astronomers. The passengers, who are from at least 18 nationalities, are involved because of a mutual interest in sustainability and climate action for a rapidly changing Earth.

“The sustainability of our planet is in crisis and so is the state of leadership in our world,” notes the website of Homeward Bound, based in Australia, a non-profit organization that has been leading all-female Antarctic expeditions since 2016. “It’s not that men can’t or won’t do this. Perhaps a balance of men and women on leadership teams will serve us all.”

Late last year, it was only women 20 percent the astrologers around the world. If current employment practices are not changed, it would take another 60 years for the female workforce in astronomy to rise to 30 percent, i.e. researchers previously found.

“More than 50 percent of women in tech roles leave the industry before they turn 35,” said Homeward Bound CEO Pamela Sutton-Legaud in her statement. “We are here to empower more women within this sector, by helping them to take advantage of the tools they need to excel in their industries – especially in the fight for the sustainability of our planet.”

To promote the need for sustainability, regions in Antarctica that were rapidly warming due to human-driven activities were chosen to serve as vulnerable backdrops during the tour. These are areas where sea ice levels are lower than ever and the alarming loss of penguins, among other worrying trendsbecause of the crisis.

“I’ll be wearing a citizen hat much more than an astronomer hat,” Anna Frebel, a physics professor at MIT who is also on the ship, told Space.com. “Of course, it will all be beautiful, but the scientist’s eye will also reveal what we cannot see, that there is not enough ice and that there are not enough penguins alive.”

By 2036, the program aims to build a network of 10,000 women scientists in leadership positions around the world who are ready to tackle climate issues.

“Most of us feel strongly about what’s going on in the world and how our environment is changing and the impact we humans have on it,” said Musilová. “It will be very transformative to go to Antarctica and see it for ourselves.”

As part of the program, Musilová and the others pre-assessed their leadership qualities and are carrying these results with them on the trip. Building on these results, the group will undergo workshops, lectures and networking sessions to further improve their leadership skills, focusing in particular on principles such as empathy and inclusiveness. In this way, the program emphasizes “many values ​​that are not as common as they should be in work environments, including the space industry,” said Musilová.

“It’s still a male-dominated industry.”

Over the next three weeks, the group will be crossing the Drake Passage, a huge body, particularly choppy water prone to 12-meter waves. The scientists will then – weather permitting – set foot on the remote Falkland Islands and the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia before cruising around the Antarctic Peninsula on their way back to the drop-off site in Ushuaia, Argentina .

“We’ll make a lot of friends for life, maybe hold each other’s hair when we puke because we’re so crazy,” Frebel said.

Women in red shirts sit around a table.

Women in red shirts sit around a table.

During this self-funded trip, the group will be cut off from the rest of the world with only occasional access to the internet. “Our day jobs and our families and all these things that we care about — but eat up our mental bandwidth — can’t get to us,” said another passenger, Tiffany Vora of Explore Mars, a nonprofit corporation based in Massachusetts. space.com.

Vora plans to bring the leadership skills she learns from the trip back home, continuing to support women’s leadership in the space industry long after she escapes Antarctica. Another of her main goals, she said, is to show that there is no fundamental conflict between improving life on Earth and expanding human civilization beyond our planet: “We don’t have to choose between Earth and space if we make the right choices starting today.”

In addition to the trip’s leadership skills development agenda, participants are looking forward to having some fun during the trip, including taking a “cold plunge” into the Antarctic sea, building a number of arts and crafts projects, even dress up for a costume party.

“I’m still deciding on my costume – my top three choices are Barbie, a disco ball or Ernest Shackleton,” Isobel Romero-Shaw of Cambridge University in the UK told Space.com ahead of the trip.

Creating an impact

Although the mission aims to inspire leadership for a sustainable, climate-friendly future on Earth, Vora and a few other astronomers see definite parallels with space exploration.

“In my mind, space is fundamentally a sustainability problem,” she said. “You are working at the edge of what is possible. Not everyone is on board For starters. How do you lead in those times?”

She hopes to spark conversations among shipboard participants with expertise outside of astronomy about how they can contribute to the space industry, and ultimately create a long-term support network.

“To me, it maps beautifully what we’ve had to do for decades in thinking about a future where people will take their home off Earth,” Vora said, “like learning to work in resource-constrained settings when faced with polarity, confusion and discomfort. .”

“To create any significant impact, we need broad collaboration and a very large network,” passenger Mariya Lyubenova, an astronomer and editor of the European Southern Observatory’s quarterly magazine, The Messenger, told Space.com. Lyubenova plans to apply her leadership skills to support dark sky conservation, for which cooperation between nations is critical, she said.

Women in matching red shirts stand on a ship, looking out to sea.  Their backs are facing the camera.Women in matching red shirts stand on a ship, looking out to sea.  Their backs are facing the camera.

Women in matching red shirts stand on a ship, looking out to sea. Their backs are facing the camera.

Scientists are known to have well-trained, highly logical brains, and while this can help them approach problems in systematic ways, strategic planning alone does not translate theoretical solutions into impactful actions. Therefore, astrologers on the ship also hope to learn soft skills through the program’s teamwork tasks.

“We need to learn certain transferable skills,” Debatri Chattopadhyay, a research associate at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and a passenger on the ship, told Space.com. “We know physics, of course, but physics is not going to teach us how to handle people.”

Others view the all-female tour as “a giant focus group.”

“We keep each other honest but also focused on what our goals are and how to get there,” said Frebel. “At the end of the day, we all agree that we want to do something for the planet.”

The group’s diverse background would play an important role in having tough conversations about leadership, as the trip dislodges them from their everyday echo chambers and forces them to look critically at creative solutions to climate issues.

Frebel will be carrying paintings by a local artist featuring different types of penguins, whales, krill and seals. She plans to take photos of them buried in the Antarctic snow and display those pictures at an exhibit at home in Massachusetts in the future.

“Climate change is real and if we want to keep seeing penguins, we better do something.”

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