MAAS Magazine

Expedition to Antarctica

Assistant Curator Nina Earl reflects on her journey to Antarctica, as part of the women’s leadership program Homeward Bound. 

First steps on the Antarctic continent.
First steps on the Antarctic continent. Photo by Paola Tello Guerrero

Summer in Antarctica is noisy and cold. The temperature hovers around 0⁰C and on most of the rocky sites there is an overwhelming smell of digested krill or diesel. You may wonder why on Earth someone would want to visit there.

I recently spent three weeks on board a ship in Antarctica among 78 other women working in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine). Antarctica is unlike any other place in the world. We visited research stations and penguin colonies, navigated a field of floating sea ice, were surrounded by a herd of feeding whales and saw ruins left by early explorers. Here, with little to no experience of humans, the wildlife will get up close and personal.

This incredible journey was part of the yearlong women’s leadership program Homeward Bound. This program equips women with skills to become effective leaders, as well as the knowledge, support and visibility to influence change in the public sector. In 2018, our cohort welcomed a range of expertise from a variety of disciplines, from PhD students working with spiders and parasitic diseases to Nobel laureates at the forefront of astronomy.

Lemaire Channel
Lemaire Channel

During the year we covered content on leadership, visibility, personal strategy and science. Before our departure, the program challenged me to consider how I interact with others and deliver information — both important considerations for a curator. On board, we heard from each participant, which provided an opportunity to understand the collective knowledge of the group and to identify possibilities for collaboration.

We discussed issues such as gender equality within the STEMM fields and the challenges facing our planet, while developing realistic goals towards creating change as a collective. We also learnt about the Antarctic continent, its management, the animals and plants that call it home and even the diversity of icebergs.

Why have a women’s leadership program in such a unique and isolated part of our planet? As the southernmost continent, Antarctica is almost entirely covered by ice, yet it is one of the largest deserts on our planet. Despite its inhospitable ecosystem, it has native plant and animal species, as well as abundant marine life. It is the Earth’s only continent without a native human population, and it is a place where the effects of global warming are obvious. For a group of women aiming to influence policy, being able to meet and talk with the people witnessing this change was vital.

Fur seal asleep on Deception Island
Fur seal asleep on Deception Island

We were welcomed by research staff at Rothera Station (British Antarctic Survey) and Palmer Station (United States Antarctic Program), gained a glimpse of their work and had in-depth conversations with women about the challenges they face. Much of the work these teams undertake connects them with other researchers around the world; whether that is meteorological and atmospheric science at Rothera, or contributing to our understanding of long-term and large-scale ecological events as a part of the LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research) Network at Palmer Station.

Antarctica is considered the last great wilderness. Being a visitor to this land of ice shifted my view of myself and the world. The isolation provided a space to delve into deep and challenging issues without the distractions of daily life. I gained a depth of understanding on this journey that will have far-reaching benefits to both my personal and professional life. I am already seeing ways this network will enrich both the MAAS collection and the work we undertake to promote the intersection between art and science.

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