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Who Listens in the Snow?

So how do we bring everything from Homeward Bound – the women, the science, the leadership lessons – together to address complex real world leadership problems? We were very fortunate to have Musimbi Kanyoro on board as our ‘elder’, who has extensive experience from leading the Global Fund for Women and many other nonprofit human rights organisations. Her sessions were always incredibly inspiring, which you can get a sense of if you read her own blog post after coming back from Homeward Bound:

Antarctica has spoken to me…. we are such a small thing in this ocean. We can be supported, and we can be roughed up. We must realise that we can try and do things to help the vulnerabilities we see, and we must also recognise that if we don’t, we will continually destabilise the root of nature and then ruin the only possibilities we have.

-Musimbi Kanyoro
Ice and water in the Gerlache Strait.

Here we come to the heart of why we went to Antarctica: both the epic scale of what we saw and the epic changes which were so visible there show that action is needed to preserve our planet for future generations. And, being in a closed environment with other women in science for 3 weeks created, as Musimbi called it, a ‘leadership laboratory’ where we were able to learn and plan and accomplish so much more than a weeklong course in a conference center somewhere, or an online course once a week. It was an immersive environment for making change, and as the faculty frequently told us, the 13th faculty member was Antarctica. Listening to the voice of that wilderness was one of the most important things we did there, balanced with the task of making that voice more widely heard. As Wallace Stegner puts it, “instead of listening to the silence, we have shouted into the void.” That must change.

From a silent Zodiac cruise, listening.

However, it’s a hard task to bring everyone to the table. Homeward Bound aims to empower women with legacy minded leadership skills, to be collaborative and inclusive rather than self-promoting. I’ve written about how our participants came from many countries and many walks of life, and the age range spanned from 25 to 70. But there was still room for broader intersectionality in who was on board, and what is wonderful is that we discussed this openly, many times, with the leaders of Homeward Bound. Given that the program is based in Australia, it attracts many Australians, lots of English speakers from the US and Europe… but relatively fewer people from South America, Asia, and Africa. These are huge continents to have sparse representation from, and HB acknowledged the difficulty they have found in attracting broader cohorts and wanted our help in making things better. There was also an underrepresentation of LGBTQ and other minority groups who have been historically excluded, and intersectionality was an agreed upon priority for everyone but also, a work in progress.

Many clouds have to clear before we see the sun.

Even though the participants and faculty my year were the most diverse yet, I was glad that the program acknowledged the work still to be done on diversity and showed willingness to go further; to me, this reflects the challenges we all face as leaders in building diverse teams and projects. My own experiences in physics research, working in higher education, and running public engagement projects have all shown me that some forms of inclusion and equity are relatively easy, and some are harder. But we do this work because it matters, and even when we make mistakes, there is always an opportunity to show we can do better. As the brilliant Melissa McEwan described it, allyship is a process and not an identity – each action a chance to work toward our purpose. This also helps us not to be defensive when we fail, a lesson that applies to leadership and life equally.

Now that all 100 of us who went through this intense learning experience together are back home, how can we translate what we’ve learned to our everyday environments? I have found my 100 day action plan a great help (from our strategy work with Kit Jackson), as well as encouragement from the other participants and faculty members. People who experience Homeward Bound purportedly have a higher than average rate of job change or divorce after they return, and I think it’s clear why: the program asks the difficult questions, pushing you to go to the heart of who you are and why you are doing the things you are doing. Fortunately, HB provides a safe environment to explore those questions, and a community to support each other as we all try to act on our values, combating sexism in STEM as well as climate change, and making a world with better leaders for the greater good.

Trying to remember the bigger picture.

The next call for applications to be part of Homeward Bound will be open in March here. Please do feel free to get in touch with me if you are considering applying; it has been an incredibly empowering experience for me which I would wholeheartedly recommend. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to do this, and the support of many colleagues, friends and family – it has been a transformational experience even though I suspect the transformation is still in progress!

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.

Unanchored

Often it’s the natural world that provides us with our first taste of science. As children we are natural explorers and investigators, trying to understand: what is that mountain made from? Why is the sky blue? What are flowers for? What do bees do? What are the stars in the sky?

This curiosity can often carry over into adulthood, even if we aren’t scientists, even if we don’t spend much time outside. I recently went on a hike with a geologist and a botanist, and I must have sounded like a child myself: why are the rocks cracked this way? What’s this flower? How were these mountains formed? And when I was in the Arctic, I noticed there too that the ecologists, the natural scientists were very popular, subject to an endless litany of questions about what we were seeing, about what it meant.

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Initially science is quite exciting, as it seems to have all the answers. But the natural world is complex, full of interconnected cycles and systems, and we are still actively discovering the ways in which weather, animal populations, plant habitats, and so many other things all depend on each other. We can watch ecological cycles, and see how they change, and look back in time to see how they have changed in the past.

And from that, we understand that we are changing our planet irrevocably.

In the Arctic, we could see the glaciers receding and the sea ice which shrinks further and further each year, thanks to the warming that our CO2 emissions have caused. The Arctic is warming faster than any region on the planet, with strong ramifications for global circulation patterns and warming and acidification of the oceans. This warming will also affect ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, triggering sea level rise and more extreme weather like floods, heat waves, and droughts which endanger the global food supply. While climate scientists are still working to understand the full depths of the changes the Anthropocene era of human activity has brought, what is clear is that the planet is warming, the oceans are becoming acidic, and the consequences are likely catastrophic.

For a long time, the natural world has been viewed as an endless bounty. Full of wildlife and vast resources, so much grander than we humans that the idea of changing or depleting nature seemed ridiculous. But humanity has a different perspective now. We have been to space, and seen the pale blue dot that contains all of civilization, floating alone in the void. And we have seen that Earth’s resources are finite, that we cannot extract fuels or minerals indefinitely, that we cannot kill off massive numbers of animals and expect them to magically come back next year.

In the Arctic, we visited an old whaling station, where so many beluga whales had been killed in the 1930s that the beach was littered with bones. Whaling, which was intensive and economically important for a long time, is now heavily controlled after many whale populations were driven nearly to extinction. We saw what we were doing to the planet, and we acted across national boundaries to protect our shared resources. Whaling quotas and bans are now strictly enforced, with the result that many whale populations are beginning to rebound. However, it has taken decades.

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Global action on climate change has not been as straightforward to implement. Different countries have different CO2 emissions profiles, and will be affected to varying degrees by global warming. Economic interests mean that many countries (and industries) are hesitant to take the first step, and even seemingly promising developments like the Paris accord are subject to the whims of unreliable governments who may decide that the next four years are more important than the next four hundred years.

We must fight this. Individual actions, like reducing your carbon footprint by examining how you travel, what you eat, and where you live, are a necessary and important start. However, they will not be sufficient when the economic and political situation still favors carbon emission, subsidizing fossil fuels, and spending toward entrenched lobbying interests rather than the public good of all people on our precious planet. Systemic change is needed, and realistically we are already too late to be able to stop climate change. What we can do now is act to minimize its damage.

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At the northernmost point we reached in the Arctic, nearly 80°N, we anchored our ship to an ice floe. The ice floe was only somewhat larger than the ship, and yet once we were attached to it, it felt like we were completely stationary. The sea stood all around us, the mountains and glaciers in the distance, and it seemed as if we had our feet planted firmly at the top of the world.

And yet, by tracking the ship on a map we could see that we had actually drifted several miles, attached to the ice, without feeling a thing! It is difficult to comprehend sometimes, that disconnect between what you perceive and the reality of things. And yet we know what we are seeing when we look at our warming planet, our melting world, and the science is telling us what it means. Humanity is anchored to this planet, and we too are drifting. We must open our eyes and act, if we hope to have any say in where we end up.

Link

The Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox

For a great example of science communication (and some fascinating thought puzzles) take a look at Wait But Why’s The Fermi Paradox, which addresses the question: where is all the other intelligent life out there?

(NSFW language in the article)

Link

Scientists don’t need to wear a white lab coat to talk about science

Scientists don’t need to wear a white lab coat to talk about science

I had a scientist request a bunch of lab gear to take into a classroom just this week (that they don’t normally use in their job). It can be fun playing dress-up, certainly, but it’s interesting to think about the repercussions of having such an authoritative uniform on public perception

How to get researchers involved in public engagement

A researcher at my institution has written a blog for the Wellcome Trust about the public engagement event we ran from February-May 2014: Magnificent Microbes. 

Hints on best practice include:

  1. Ask questions! Children can get distracted quite easily so the best way to keep their attention is to ask them what they know. This will also prevent you from telling them things that they know already.
  2. Make your activities as hands-on as possible – really enable your audience to get involved.
  3. Think about your target audience; can you present the exhibit to both young children and adults? How will you tailor what you say to suit them?
  4. Make your exhibit relevant. There is no better way to engage your audience, particularly children, than to make them realise how your research affects them personally. For instance, we use the formation of plaque on your teeth as an example of how biofilms are medically important. This allows us to engage with children by asking them how often they brush their teeth and why they think it’s necessary.
  5. Calculate the quantities of consumables you will need. It doesn’t do any harm to overestimate slightly, but be prepared to be flexible with what you have. In our case we ended up having to ask families to share particular props, as we ran short towards the end of the event.
  6. Don’t over simplify the exhibit to accommodate children. I was really pleasantly surprised at just how much the kids took away from what we told them.