Homeward Bound

Charlotte Griffiths meets two Cambridge women about to embark on an expedition to Antarctica

Boasting about the extreme cold of a Cambridge winter is one of its residents’ most-loved pastimes. And thanks to two scientists named Dr Cathy Sorbara and Hannah Laeverenz Schlogelhofer, you can now add an extra fact to your arsenal – in February, even Antarctica is warmer than our city. “It’s their summer,” Cathy explains over a cup of tea at Stickybeaks on a frosty winter morning. “Depending on the wind and the amount of sunlight, it could even be as warm as 15 degrees…”

But why do they know this? Well, this month, Cathy and Hannah are taking part in the largest ever all-female expedition to the southern-most continent, as part of the final stage of Homeward Bound – a year-long programme designed to highlight the lack of women in leadership roles in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) professions.

A year of learning via video-calls and meetings is almost up, and the two scientists are now packing for the three-week-long sea voyage. Hannah explains what’s in store: “Every day there’ll be a component of learning on board our ship, leading to a ‘Symposium at Sea’ where we each give a talk on what we do, to put into practice the science communication skills that we’ve learned. And – of course – we’ll be going off the ship to explore the icebergs, visit penguins, and meet the scientists working at the research stations based along the Antarctic peninsula.”

And the reason for the destination? “Antarctica has a very gendered history, a history of male heroism,” Hannah (above left) explains. “It’s the last continent, the last frontier – Antarctica is a symbol of the gender inequality that exists within science, engineering and exploration. It actually took over a century from when Antarctica was discovered for the first woman to work there.”

“It wasn’t until the early 80s that the British Antarctic Survey allowed women to work at the station. It’s quite remarkable,” Cathy (above right) says, diplomatically. “We were such a distraction…” 

Another objective of Homeward Bound is to highlight climate change. The Antarctic peninsula is home to a number of scientists conducting research into the environmental impact caused by human activity, and regions of the continent are rapidly altering in response to climate change. Homeward Bound’s main slogan is: ‘Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters’, making the point that if humanity cared about the earth a fraction as much as most people care for their mothers, the ecological situation might be very different indeed.   

 "Cathy and Hannah were selected from a global pool of applicants"

Additionally, Antarctica is possibly the perfect spot for an off-site meeting: the extreme habitat presents a unique opportunity to focus on the issues without distraction. “Because it’s so isolated, it’s a catalyst for a transformative experience for all of us,” Hannah says. “Taking us away from our everyday lives means that we have to be present, in that moment, with each other.”

Cathy laughs: “It just wouldn’t be the same if we had it in London!”

Cathy and Hannah started their voyage to Antarctica over a year ago, when they were selected for the Homeward Bound initiative from a global pool of applicants. Though both women have lived in Cambridge for several years, they didn’t know each other before the programme began. 

The ambition for Homeward Bound is for it to run for a decade, with around one hundred women chosen each year, eventually creating a network of one thousand women who will lead and influence policy and decision-making regarding the future of the planet. The programme is designed to equip its candidates with skills and techniques to support their advancement in leadership roles. As the cohort is extremely international, this work is carried out via regular video meetings and smaller country-specific working groups, where the women share advice and guidance for making the most of the experience.

“We’ve met about once a month to talk strategy, visibility, communication and behaviour skills – everything that encompasses being a leader, and building confidence,” Cathy explains. “It’s been really eye-opening.”

Homeward Bound is not trying to recruit more women as leaders for the sake of it: the project recognises that minorities bring different perspectives to the leadership table, which is precisely why they can be so valuable. “We just need a change,” Cathy says. “The leadership that’s brought us to where we are today isn’t going to be able to get us to where we need to go – so why not get a whole bunch of different perspectives, different behaviours and different personalities to the table, and see what happens?”

Aside from her Homeward Bound studies, Cathy, a Canadian neuroscientist who lives in Romsey, divides her days between her role as Chief Operations Officer of Cheeky Scientist, a start-up that helps academics transition into industry – and working as Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a network for women in science, engineering and technology careers. 

It was through AWiSE that Cathy first discovered the programme: a Homeward Bound alumnus gave a talk on her experience to the network. “I was just blubbering in the front row,” Cathy says. “I thought she was amazing. I went to speak to her afterwards, and it turned out that the applications [for next year’s expedition] were closing in three days time – it was
so serendipitous.”

Hannah is a PhD student in the Physics and Plant Sciences Department of Cambridge University, and hopes to complete her studies in the next year. She also found Homeward Bound via someone who was on the first trip, proving that the network is already working well: “Someone I studied with at Cambridge was involved in 2016, and I watched her go through the experience thinking: ‘I need to be a part of this’.”

The trip has not come cheap. “We have to raise $16,000 each for us to go, and that’s not including flights or insurance,” Cathy says. “Hannah and I have done a lot of fundraising: in October we put together an evening of Empowering Women with a wonderful panel of women – a photographer, a lecturer, a management consultant – who talked about their own leadership journeys. I also held a ‘Spinathon’ at my local gym in Cambridge, where we spun for five hours…”

 "Homeward Bound's slogan is 'Mother Nature needs her daughters"

Upon their return to civilisation, the two scientists will become part of the Homeward Bound network – and with expedition dates set for the 2018 cohort and applications closed for 2019, it’s clear there’s no stemming the tide of applicants. What’s their advice for anyone considering applying? “Don’t think too much about it,” Cathy says. “Don’t think if your background is suitable, or if you have enough accomplishments. When I applied I saw all these women with climatology backgrounds, or that had some link to Antarctica, so I started doubting myself – but there is literally a passage on the application form that says: ‘We know women tend to not apply unless they’re 100% qualified, so we’re telling you – just apply.’ It was like the voice in my head was on the computer.”

When Cathy and Hannah return, their day jobs will also be waiting for them – though they’re both hoping that such an experience will have a swift impact on their careers.  

“I’m at a crossroads, but I’m already inspired by the women that we’ve been collaborating with,” Cathy says. “The women from last year’s expedition said that you don’t really understand the difference that Homeward Bound makes until you’ve come back, and you’ve let it all digest. Just let it happen, and see where it takes you.”

Hannah feels similarly: “I’m going to be finishing my PhD within a year or so, and I’ve had all this amazing education – I want to take it somewhere exciting, but I don’t know where. Being part of this network, where every single woman has an inspiring story, will really help me start to shape where I want to take my career. So my hope is that we continue the network – and that it doesn’t end.”

Learn more about Homeward Bound at homewardboundprojects.com.au

Find Cathy and Hannah on Twitter / Instagram

@cathysorbara  @hannahscope


The Knowledge 

How long have you lived in Cambridge?

Cathy: I’ve been here over three years.

Hannah: I’ve been here for seven.

If you were bringing new people to the city, where would you take them?

C: I’d take them to a coffee shop: I live very close to Mill Road, and there are so many amazing coffee shops on that strip – it’s literally how I spend my Sunday mornings.  

H: Mill Road area is definitely a place where I like to take people – everyone knows the centre, but people who are new to the city might not find their way there. I also really love the Heong Gallery at Downing College – it’s a relatively new art gallery and they always have amazing exhibitions – they had an Ai Weiwei exhibition, they had Quentin Blake, Elizabeth Frink – it’s a really beautiful space.

Where would you eat out?

C: I do like Charlie’s pizza. And Urban Larder’s toasties.  

H: The Salisbury Arms, which is right round the corner from me – they do amazing pizza – and I also really like the North African restaurant on Mill Road [Bedouin], and The Sea Tree.

C: Did you know you can buy sushi-grade fish from The Sea Tree? It’s really lovely, it’s the best fish – tuna and salmon – it was a discovery I only made about three weeks ago.