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AIMS’ top female scientist travels to the ‘end of the world’ to elevate the role of women in science

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08 March 2017

When the 84 metre polar vessel Ushuaia left the safety of the harbour at Ushuaia, Argentina, Dr Nicole Webster recalls feeling quite nervous. Alongside seventy-six other women, she was about to make history as a member of the largest-ever female expedition to Antarctica.

The inaugural Homeward Bound voyage set sail on 2 December 2016 and is a key component of a new, transformational year-long program aimed at empowering women, with critical science backgrounds, to take on influential leadership roles that shape the health of the planet.


Dr Nicole Webster in the South Shetland Islands surrounded by 200,000 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins. Image: AIMS/N.Webster

As a highly accomplished marine microbiologist, Dr Webster was usually quite comfortable working hard and navigating through new situations. She had quickly risen to the top of her field undertaking innovative research in labs across the globe – from Europe to North America. But, as she unpacked her bags in the small cabin of the Ushuaia, Dr Webster confided that she felt unsure of how she would contribute to the lofty goals of the Homeward Bound program.

“It was such a whirlwind experience. I had literally applied for a spot on the maiden voyage two days before applications closed. When I got notification of my acceptance, I could hardly believe I was going to Antarctica,” Dr Webster explained.

“Despite almost a year of preparation, when the day came for us to set sail from Ushuaia, I was feeling incredibly nervous,” she said.

“Thankfully, any reservations I had quickly melted away as I began to personally get to know the group of extraordinarily talented women.”

The 30–day voyage traversed the scenic waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. As the scenery shifted, from the deep blue open water of the treacherous Drake Passage to the towering icebergs and immense penguin colonies of the south Shetland Islands, so too did Dr Webster’s perspective on what it means to be a successful female scientist.


Visiting the Antarctic Peninsula on board the Ushuaia, featuring icebergs and a colony of Adelie penguins. Image: AIMS/N.Webster

“There were so many participants that had been adversely affected by gender-bias during the course of their careers. It was a real awakening for me. There was clearly a need for a targeted solution to get more women scientists at the leadership table,” she said.

The focus of this ground-breaking program is just that – a mechanism to empower the participants with news skills in transformational leadership and strategic thinking. The learning is supported by a diverse team of experts, including pre-recorded lectures by some of the world’s most inspirational and accomplished female scientists including Dr Jane Goddall and Dr Syliva Earle, and international political leaders such as Christiana Figueres.

Dr Webster believes the journey will have lasting effects on her both personally and professionally.

“I feel like I have a greater amount of clarity in my life. I now recognise the core values that drive my decision-making and actions, and I’m now equipped with the knowledge to better relate to others in more positive and productive ways,” she said.

“The Program has enabled me to confidently prioritise my work and my life, and I have a personal and professional strategy map that will help me on the leadership pathway.

“Most importantly,” she added, “I am connected to a fantastic network of incredibly talented and passionate Homeward Bound women who will continue to share the journey with me. The experience was certainly so much more than I had expected.”

Dr Webster is looking forward to continuing her mentoring of students and staff with a fresh set of eyes and a keen sense of purpose. Going forward, she is looking to support women from a place where their needs and values are central, and where they can feel empowered to pursue their version of career success.

We congratulate Dr Webster for her outstanding achievements as a courageous and talented female scientist, evoking the true spirit of International Women’s Day.