USU researcher gears up for all-female Antarctica expedition

USU researcher gears up for all-female Antarctica expedition


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SALT LAKE CITY — At this time next year, Melissa Haeffner hopes to be scaling the terrain of the coldest continent on Earth as a participant in Homeward Bound's first all-female voyage to Antarctica.

But even now, Haeffner said her journey is unfolding.

"The expedition into Antarctica is actually just one piece of the whole puzzle," said Haeffner, a postdoctoral researcher at Utah State University. "It's not just a trip to Antarctica — it's an entire year's worth of building up a research proposal and a global network of women scientists."

Homeward Bound is the name for the 10-year outreach program that intends to mobilize 1,000 women with a science background to take a seat at the leadership table, outreach founding partner Fabian Dattner said. Haeffner and 77 other female scientists, eight from the U.S., were selected to embark on the first 20-day excursion that will begin Dec. 2, 2016.

The expedition will focus on helping women develop leadership and strategic skills while studying Antarctica as a "sentinel for global climate change," according to Dattner.

"No matter what discipline we as the scientists come from, we are all working on some aspect of climate science, and Antarctica is what some might say is the canary in the coal mine — that it is feeling the impact of climate change and the rapid increase of carbon emissions in the atmosphere more than any other place," Haeffner said.

What is Homeward Bound?

Homeward Bound was born after Dattner had a dream of taking the world's up-and-coming influential women scientists to Antarctica. She said it was "like God-given inspiration," so she began planning the voyage, and it all fell into place.

Dattner, of Australia, said women's leadership in the world is at a "crisis point" because, although women make up about 50 percent of the world's population, their representation staggers, including their leadership in science, technology, engineering and math research.

According to Dattner, women scientists are some of the "most devalued" people in the world.

She said women have generally been longtime advocates of preserving the environment, but they haven't stepped into those leadership positions that would help them get that message out.

"We balance the planet with a cost. There has to be a wise coexistence. As women we realize that the world is our home. We lift our hearts up and think, 'This is our home. What home do we want to leave for our children?'" Dattner said. "But there's a joke that to get into polar science you have to have a beard."

Haeffner said women's discoveries are often overlooked, but taking an Antarctic journey will draw public attention to their findings.

Faculty including Jane Goodall, primatologist and environmental campaigner, Franny Armstrong, filmmaker behind "The Age of Stupid," and Susan David, business and psychology leader from Harvard, will teach the participants while they are on the ship to Antarctica.

Dattner said the training will "lead to a movement" where the participants will come home "knowing how to change the world."

The 78 women from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, France, South Africa, the U.S. and other countries have already been networking through monthly conference calls, discussing their research plans for the voyage. The idea is that this global communication will continue long after the trek ends, Haeffner said.

The women divided themselves into groups and have commenced research for projects they will work on during the trip. Dattner said the subjects of these projects range from measuring the carbon footprints of worldwide companies to studying the health of the planet at large to understanding how snowfall affects the penguin population in Antarctica.

Haeffner's role

While many of the scientists will be studying ecological elements, Haeffner said she has a unique role. As one of the few social scientists on the journey, she said she will be gathering data on how scientists can bridge natural sciences with social sciences.

"Traditionally we have our disciplines, so you are either a sociologist, or you're an ecologist, or you're an anthropologist, or you're this or that, and you can't be both," Haeffner said. "Some people are trying to transcend those boundaries and learning that in order to answer the questions that we have facing us, we have to understand knowledge from different disciplines."

Haeffner used climate change as an example of this. She said scientists often look at climate change ecologically without looking at it socially. If it's human behavior and actions that change the Earth's atmosphere, then studying what humans do may help ecologists uncover the underlying issues, she said.

Haeffner will interview each of the scientists on the expedition and ask them how they blend multiple areas of science in their work. She'll also ask what barriers there are in combining the sciences.

With a bachelor's degree in sociology, a master's in urban planning and a doctorate in ecology, interdisciplinary study is something Haeffner is passionate about, she said, and the Antarctica expedition is giving her motivation to explore the concept in greater detail.

The interdisciplinary study she's planning for the expedition gave her the idea to create a group of women who share the common interest of studying multiple disciplines, she said. Haeffner's group, which she named Undisciplined Women, is still in its brainstorming phase, but she said she's excited to see what comes from it.

This is the perfect time for Haeffner to go on this expedition because her associates at USU look at the excursion as a professional development opportunity, she said, and she doesn't have any other responsibilities that would keep her from going.

Many women have children at home or can't afford to take 20 days off of work to go on a trip, she said, so she plans to openly share her studies with them through her Undisciplined Women group.

Haeffner thinks Undisciplined Women might also help her raise the $15,000 she needs for the Antarctic excursion. The $15,000 will go to pay mostly for the travel because the Homeward Bound faculty and team have donated their time for this cause.

Haeffner is using Instrumentl, a crowdfunding site for research projects, to promote the interdisciplinary studies she will be doing in Antarctica.

Those who are interested in her research can donate* to her studies on the Instrumentl site, she said, and then she can keep them updated on her findings.

"All of this is so new," she said. "It's amazing to be part of something that's so cutting edge."


* does not assure that the monies deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisors and otherwise proceed at your own risk.

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