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A neuroscientist among the penguins: Cambridge's Dr Cathy Sorbara joins women in Antarctica with Homeward Bound project

Dr Cathy Sobara heads to Antarctica. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Cathy Sobara heads to Antarctica. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cathy is with Cambridge PhD student and international scientists on leadership programme

Image from the inaugural voyage to Antarctica by Homeward Bound Project in December 2016
Image from the inaugural voyage to Antarctica by Homeward Bound Project in December 2016

There isn’t normally much demand for a neuroscientist among the penguins and icebergs of the coldest place on Earth.

But Dr Catherine Sorbara, who hails from Canada and now lives near Mill Road, is in Antarctica on an extraordinary voyage.

On board with her as their vessel left Argentina was a fellow Cambridge scientist – PhD student Hannah Laeverenz Schlogelhofer, who works in the physics and plant sciences departments researching microbial ecology.

And among those accompanying them were a New York botanist who helps students characterise the algae in the rain gutters of North Carolina homes, a Tasmanian bushwalking marine scientist, a New Zealand government scientist and mum-of-three with expertise in terrestrial alpine crickets, a Colombian physicist who specialises in the physical properties of rock and an Australian PhD student who overcame arachnophobia to study the use of spider venom for next-generation drugs.

They will have, you sense, plenty to talk about.

They are the second such cohort of women to participate in Homeward Bound, an extraordinary annual leadership and science initiative culminating in an expedition to Antarctica.

The Homeward Bound project team will experience Antarcticas amazing wildlife
The Homeward Bound project team will experience Antarcticas amazing wildlife

The aim of Fabian Dattner, the Australian social entrepreneur who conceived of this eclectic notion, is to heighten the influence and impact of women with a science background on policy and decision-making as it shapes our planet.

Launched in 2016, the plan is to engage 1,000 women from science backgrounds over the course of a decade in year-long programmes to develop their strategic skills and generate a powerful network.

With women still under-represented in leadership positions, Homeward Bound hopes to equip participants with the tools and confidence to effect change and bring about a more sustainable future – hence the focus on Antarctica, a region of the world that is showing some of the fastest responses to climate change.

It was a member of the inaugural voyage, Deborah Pardo, formerly of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, that brought the project to Cathy’s attention.

“Deborah gave a talk at a Cambridge AWiSE (Association for Women in Science and Engineering) event I was chairing. I listened to her talk and was in awe.

“I pretty much attacked her after the event and said ‘How do I get involved?’ It was serendipitous that applications for next year’s event closed three days later. I was lucky enough to get my application in in time and be accepted. We started last February.

Dr Cathy Sorbara preparing for her Homeward Bound trip. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Cathy Sorbara preparing for her Homeward Bound trip. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The programme itself provides us with leadership and communication capabilities and helps to promote us for leadership positions, but it also provides us with this incredible and encouraging network of women. That was the immediate draw and then of course Deborah showed us these incredible images of Antarctica…

“My background in neuroscience would never have led me to go to Antarctica, so it is an amazing opportunity.”

Renowned explorer Greg Mortimer – one of the first two Australians to climb Mount Everest without oxygen – is leading the trip and has more than 80 Antarctic expeditions to his name.

“While on board we will be continuing our leadership programme. I’ve literally just received a 300-page workbook of what we’ll be going through. It will be a combination of what we’ve been learning already – identifying our leadership styles and leveraging our communication skills.

“Also, because finally we’re all together, we’ll be collaborating with the other women scientists on the ship. We’ve formed science-based groups and we’ll be upskilling one another on what we know in our field and learning what we want to know from everyone else.”

Despite all the scientific knowledge on board, the group won’t be conducting their own experiments. But they will visit research stations to learn about their work and climate change science – including a base run by Cambridge’s own British Antarctic Survey.

An iceberg floating in the Southern Ocean in Antarctica
An iceberg floating in the Southern Ocean in Antarctica

“As part of the programme we have career/lifestyle coaches to learn about our own behaviours and we’ve talked about how we would survive in a remote place for such a long period of time,” says Cathy.

“Then there’s the whole business of not getting seasick, which I’m trying to work on.

“The first three or four days we’ll be crossing the Drake’s Passage, with the convergence of the two seas on the way to Antarctica, which does have the tendency to have really rough seas.

“It’s known as either the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake. If it’s the Drake Shake we can have up to 20-metre high seas so we’ve been told to brace ourselves. I do get car sick quite easily, so I’ve purchased some medication…”

Cathy’s day job is chief operations officer of Cheeky Scientists, an industry training platform for PhD scientists looking for work outside academia.

“It’s a global platform and we have more than 4,000 members now,” says Cathy. “Life after a PhD is a big black box for academics, especially if they are unable to obtain professor positions, so we help them to identify positions that they can get into, as well as answer everything from how to interview and how to negotiate a salary.

Dr Cathy Sorbra said she was nervous about crossing Drakes Passage, where the seas can be tumultuous. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Cathy Sorbra said she was nervous about crossing Drakes Passage, where the seas can be tumultuous. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We have a huge network of PhDs now – both those who are still in academia and those who have already transitioned into industry – who can act as a support guide for them.”

There’s more networking at Cambridge AWiSE, based out of Lucy Cavendish College, which plans monthly events.

“AWise is an amazing group of women. Our events can include networking and upskilling women helping them, for example, to beat impostor syndrome or gain confidence in the workplace. We have a lot of inspirational speakers.”

Cathy learned the value of such networking after completing her PhD in Germany and moving to Cambridge three years ago.

“I realised quickly that by meeting like-minded people you can do anything from finding a job to feeling welcome in a new city,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing to have a supportive and encouraging network.

“Something women lack, especially when trying to climb the career ladder, is having female mentorship or other women in their corporation that they can lean on.”

A ship cruising among icebergs in Antarctica
A ship cruising among icebergs in Antarctica

Cathy had to raise $16,000 to take part in Homeward Bound – and is still fundraising online.

“It seemed extremely daunting at the time but I learned a lot about visibility and pushing myself out there,” she says.

Sharing her story, she found, could also encourage other women.

“Then there was a chance to do more outreach at local schools, encouraging girls to go into STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] roles, which I’ve really enjoyed doing,” she says.

The imbalance of women in STEM roles has much to do, Cathy believes, with a lack of female mentors – an issue brought to the fore on Sunday (February 11), with the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

“When all you see is men in these roles, it leads to an unconscious bias from girls who think, ‘Well, I can’t do that, it’s clearly a man’s job’,” says Cathy. “I think it starts early – there’s an unconscious bias in parents too. They tend to raise girls towards certain type of roles and that’s not engineering and mathematics.

“I was lucky that both my father and my brother were maths nerds. They loved teaching me maths and I was inspired by them to do it. I loved it from the start. Mentoring is really important and I think it’s something that not a lot of girls get.”

Cathy, who also enjoys marathon running, aims to do more outreach work in schools on her return from Antarctica – and will explore opportunities with the women she has met through the project.

“There has also been a lot of discussion with the other women about how we might collaborate after Homeward Bound,” she says. “That’s really exciting for me.”

Antartica, then, could be just the beginning.

Creating ‘deep and lasting change’ with a global collaboration of women

Fabian Dattner, who devised the Homeward Bound project, says the vision is to equip a 1,000-strong global collaboration of women with a science background to lead, influence and contribute to policy and decision-making as it informs the future of our planet within 10 years.

She says of the second cohort: “They have been working together since February 2017; the voyage is the culmination of a program that has given them, in many instances, life-changing insights into themselves; self-awareness in abundance.

“It’s helped them think strategically about their life, work and visibility. They are bonding with one another and sharing their stories in ways that bring vulnerability and courage to new levels.

“They are the key beneficiaries of the insights, lessons and collaboration of all the women who preceded them; they are the first followers who are taking Homeward Bound from being a one-off experiment to a scalable, global initiative that we hope will run for 10 years - if not more, and bring deep and lasting change to these women’s work and lives, and to the parts of the world they seek to influence.”

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