Monthly Archives: January 2020

The Same Wind

Last time I told you about Homeward Bound, the women in STEM leadership program that brought me to Antarctica, and some of the things we all learned about ourselves on the ship. It was quite an incredible environment, intense and self-contained so that we all had space to think about what we were learning, and many people to discuss it with. It was a wonderful environment to learn more about ourselves: our behaviors and our values.

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica.

Broadening our focus out from the self, we also talked quite a lot with Graciela Szwarcberg about different issues that can arise when managing a team. How do you have a conversation with someone about a miscommunication, about an issue in performance, about a problem that isn’t going away? Graci led us through the 5 dysfunctions of a team, and many exercises which, to me, were about empathy, directness in communication, and considering how team dynamics can evolve and change and how that affects what work can be done. So helpful, and echoed some things I read a long time ago in the book Difficult Conversations, but in a workplace context which was really useful.

People and penguins, having difficult conversations without speaking the same language.

Before we got on the ship, they had us all fill out a tool called the LSI – Life Styles Inventory, and we also had people who worked with us fill out the same questions about us. The LSI has been validated in research as an effective tool for behavioural change, and the idea was to help show us our constructive as well as our defensive behavioural patterns, in hopes of helping us reduce the behaviours that aren’t constructive (and in fact, waste energy that could be spent constructively). I have to say, I was initially wary of the LSI, perhaps from teenage years spent filling out many surveys that purported to tell you about yourself but were really just saying the kind of vague, generalizable things that you often read in horoscopes. But after lots of time working with it, I did see the value of a deep and detailed way to analyze behavior, especially once we were on the ship and could discuss or see behavior patterns in action.

Looking to the bigger picture.

I had an LSI coach over the summer, provided by Homeward Bound, who helped me navigate the ideas and identify patterns I had, of avoiding difficult things sometimes or being competitive/perfectionist in the way that academia often rewards. The LSI coach was especially useful in contextualizing my results in my personal circumstances (for example, bereavement) and framing what kinds of behavioural change could be doable for me. After all, we are all different people who will act in different ways, but there are often ways to break bad patterns and establish new and better habits, which helps both us and those around us. I found this part of the program especially challenging, but I also have to say that it helped having so many others on the same journey with me, and I have never felt so supported and accepted by such a large group of scientists.

Support is important, as this Weddell seal demonstrates.

There was also a strong focus on the ship on science communication, and the many different forms it can take, which of course I greatly enjoyed and appreciated. They warned us beforehand that some parts of the programme might feel easy and obvious, and others might feel challenging and confronting – for me the science communication parts were familiar and fun, from my time organizing Bright Club, Soapbox Science, speaking on the radio, etc. But the science communication content then dovetailed with visibility – the idea of being visible, which is a fraught topic for many women, and what you can do to use visibility for the greater good. As our visibility team of Jen Martin and Julia May told us, ‘visibility without purpose is vanity’, so we talked a lot about why we might need to be visible as leaders and again how that might tie into our values and goals. I think this is really important for women, because women who speak up often face a greater backlash than men who have the same message, and women receive more social conditioning to be agreeable and not upset anyone which makes them more vulnerable to that backlash. Lots was also covered about resilience, and accepting that failing from time to time doesn’t make YOU a failure. If you go outside your comfort zone, and actively try to learn and grow, you will sometimes slip up. But that’s ok if you can acknowledge it, learn from it, and move forward with a better idea of what to do next time. Again, a really important life skill.

So how do we bring these pieces together to solve complex, real world leadership problems? I’ll talk about that next time in my last blog post about Homeward Bound.

Ice seems simple until you observe it in the real world.

Mind of Winter

When I first heard about a program aimed at women in STEM to develop their leadership potential, over the course of a year, with a capstone voyage to Antarctica, I knew immediately that I wanted to apply. I am a feminist physicist, but have always been a bit wary of leadership and management courses aimed at women that effectively say, you are broken unless you act more like men. But Homeward Bound seemed different – motivated by the greater good, recognizing that we need better leadership to address societal issues like climate change, and honoring the ability that women have to synthesize knowledge, think of others, and cultivate a legacy mindset rather than pursuing short term opportunism. I also really liked the global outlook of the program, with participants from countries across the world and at all career stages and ages of their lives. As someone living outside my country of birth, looking at worldwide issues and trying to find the connections between science, society, and culture, having such a diverse group of women all focused on the same issues sounded incredibly inspiring to me.

A human pride flag, made by some of our cohort and ship’s crew. Diversity in many forms!

And of course, Antarctica! From my experience in the Arctic I knew full well the power that wilderness has to inspire, to provoke reflection, and to show us the consequences of our actions. At the time I applied, I was just coming out of six months of deep grief after losing my father, and it felt crazy to hope for an experience like this. Imagine being on a ship in Antarctica surrounded by incredible women. A dream, right?

A boat full of female scientists and a diving humpback whale, from a dream that really happened.

So it was a shock when I was actually accepted onto the program: I had signed up for a year of leadership training, and a substantial amount of fundraising, followed by a sure-to-be incredible voyage to the bottom of the world. We had monthly video calls with faculty, homework, reading, coaching, and a lot of preparation. It was all pretty interesting, and I enjoyed talking to the other participants I met through discussion groups or our UK/Ireland chat group, but I have to admit that before I arrived in Ushuaia, at the southern end of Argentina to actually get on the ship, I wasn’t sure how all the training they were throwing at us would fit together. 

One of the first things we did, which I later realized actually formed the connecting strands between everything else, was a values elicitation exercise. This was led by Fabian Dattner, and the intent was to help us understand our own motivations, why we do the things we do and what is most intrinsically rewarding to us. We considered it in the contexts of our work, our relationships, and our selves, but many people (myself included) found the same values coming across in different forms on all those fronts. When I had identified my own values – creativity, connectedness, empathy – suddenly a lot of my own projects made more sense to me. I have always viewed research as a creative endeavor, and spoken at length about the parallels between research and artistic practices like comedy, music, dance. And my love for interdisciplinary science also comes from a desire to make connections across fields, between different schools of thought. But I also care about connecting people, and understanding them, in both professional and personal contexts. My public engagement work strongly reflects these values, which is why Bright Club for example is so rewarding to run.

Values are the guiding stars behind our own actions and desires.

We did a lot of work with Kit Jackson of Strategy Together to turn our values into a personal strategy: she would ask us, based on our values, to think about our aspirations, what we hoped to achieve, and thus what our priorities were. We eventually turned these into action plans, and it was very interesting to see what actions led naturally from our values – as well as what actions were not there at all, but might be part of our daily activity. One surprising benefit for me of doing this work was discovering how many of the work and life pieces I cared about are things I don’t have direct control over. You can’t control other people, which is both wonderful and difficult, and thinking of the things I wanted to do with my time but then also reflecting on whether or not I could make them part of an action plan was actually a great exercise in finding out what I just can’t control. Which is very important to recognize!

I find the wilderness is also a great teacher of what we can and can’t control. It is easier to accept lack of control when it means you are part of something beautiful.

These workshops and classes lasted about four hours each day, but often we would spend mealtimes and the shore visits discussing the same topics, or self-organising other lectures and projects (including an improv class that I co-led along with Ana Payo Payo!). Next time I’ll talk about how these learnings about the self connected to our interactions with others, and the broader context that we all hoped to do some good in.