On Antarctic Expedition, Alum Discovers... Herself

Homeward Bound 4 Antarctic expedition, courtesy of Zhimin Mao

Selfie of/by Zhimin Mao

March 10, 2020

Some people may dream of the opportunity to take an exotic Antarctic cruise. Others may dream of the opportunity to increase their self-awareness and leadership skills through a year-long training program. By participating in Homeward Bound’s fourth cohort in 2019, alum Zhimin Mao (cohort ’11) was able to do both.

Homeward Bound describes itself as “a global initiative aiming to deepen [participants’] relationship with science (and policy) as it informs what is happening to our planet.” It also focuses on enhancing their “leadership, strategic and visibility skills so that [they] are better equipped to effect positive outcomes in [their] sphere of influence as well as in the wider world.”

But the truly unusual element of the program is that it was designed specifically for (and by) women working in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM). And the fourth cohort — HB4 — was the world's largest all-female expedition, with 100 participants.

Mao applied in May 2018 after hearing about the program from a friend on a Chinese social media group chat. “I was impressed by the idea of empowering female scientists,” she said, “especially on how to deal with the climate change challenge. That’s what prompted me to apply.” In the end, however, she learned much more about herself.

Although targeted toward women in STEMM, “the focus is on leadership, not just science,” Mao said. “In my application, I cited a well-known Chinese proverb, 达者兼计天下, which roughly translates as 'If you are gifted enough to be able to take a leadership role, you have the responsibility to improve others’ welfare.'”

The Influence of Pardee RAND

Homeward Bound 4 Antarctic expedition, courtesy of Zhimin Mao

Photo courtesy Zhimin Mao

Mao said she thinks her experience at Pardee RAND — conducting research with professors such as Debra Knopman, Robert Lempert, David Groves, and Nick Burger — helped her application. Her dissertation was a mixed-methods assessment of China’s air pollution reduction efforts, and she had also worked with Lempert and Groves on Robust Decision Making research evaluating flood risk in Vietnam and infrastructure development in Africa.

“I was able to highlight my experience at Pardee RAND and the research I’d done on environment and climate change policy. The benefit of working in policy, at RAND and now at the World Bank” — where Mao is a water resources management specialist — “is that we do have leverage to influence climate policy. I think that’s why they liked my application, because of my experiences working in climate change adaptation.”

Still, she said she was conflicted when she found out her application was successful.

“I found out at the end of my maternity leave. I was a new mom and was still catching up with the new job, but I’m glad I accepted,” she said. “There’s a year-long leadership training program that leads up to the trip, so when I went to Antarctica at the end of the program, my daughter was already two years old.”

Over the course of that year — from November 2018 through November 2019 — Mao had regular online meetings and calls with a personal coach, in which she explored leadership styles and her own strengths.

“Homeward Bound is very focused on inward-looking leadership training,” she said. “It’s not just traditional strategy-and-tactics focused. The program wants to nurture a new leadership style – a style that focus on trust, empathy, collaboration, and a legacy mindset. It’s about understanding yourself better — your own values, strengths, and weaknesses — because sometimes women have to have a lot of courage and confidence to make themselves visible, even if they are capable. Often we are our own biggest critics. The program taught us that it is OK to show vulnerability and be authentic.”

Mao said the training was both professional and personal. “We also learned how to be strategic about our relationships and ourselves. Female leaders tend to be perfectionists, but that translates into stress at work and in their personal lives. The search for external validation can make us feel less competent. The goal is self-actualization.”

One might wonder what all of this has to do with STEMM and the environment, but Mao said that was actually quite obvious to her.

“Climate change requires people to take a longer-term view, and it requires a different sort of leadership,” she said. “One of the reasons founder Fabian Dattner started the program is because she saw the traditional view of leadership as short-sighted. Especially when we talk about robust decision making — RDM — we’re looking hundreds of years out. My Pardee RAND learning and experience helped me to intuitively understand the Homeward Bound initiative and goals.”

99 'Sisters'

HB4 participants before boarding their ship for the Antarctic expedition

Photo courtesy Homeward Bound

As for HB4’s Antarctic element, Mao said it was definitely a tremendous culmination of her year of preparation.

“Before the voyage began, we had two days on the ground in southern Argentina to refresh our training and get to know each other, and also to understand the cultural differences and diversity of the group,” she said. “It wasn’t just that we were from many countries and backgrounds. About one-third of the participants were older, one-third were mid-career, and one-third were Ph.D. students or younger. The youngest was 23, the oldest was 70. The organizers’ goal was to facilitate an exchange of experience and knowledge.”

The expedition also included twelve faculty members with expertise in a wide range of scientific fields.

One of the faculty members was Musimbi Kanyoro, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. “She taught us to always believe we are good enough to take a leadership role — ‘you should want to be a CEO’ is a phrase she always mentions — and not be bothered by other’s opinions.”

Mao said they were also treated to three pre-recorded master classes on leadership during the voyage. The presenters were the noted primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall; Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School; and Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “All three gave very powerful talks on what leadership means, but I couldn’t forget what Christiana said, with tears in her eyes: ‘We have no excuses to fail to tackle the climate change challenge. As never before, we finally have a generation that gets it and are willing to take action.’”

Mao added, “We may have had twelve faculty members on board, but we viewed Antarctica as our thirteenth faculty member; it was more than just a backdrop of our learning and destination for our voyage,” she said.

Mao was one of about a half-dozen Chinese women to participate, which had its own cultural challenges.

“As a Chinese woman, I’m not that emotional or touchy-feely,” she said. “I was even warned by my coach that I might feel uncomfortable being around so many high-achieving women. But it was a great experience. The trip itself surprised me. Everyone was very supportive and emotionally connected.”

Each day of the HB4 voyage included a “Symposium at Sea,” where up to 10 participants had 3 minutes each to share their professional and personal backgrounds.

“It was humbling,” Mao said. “So many women had achieved so much, despite facing harassment, prejudice, and difficult family situations. Every day, people were in tears listening to each other’s stories. But it also made me feel empowered; knowing that they could do so much, it made me feel I am good enough to do more.”

Learning by Sharing

Homeward Bound 4 Antarctic expedition, courtesy of Zhimin Mao

Photo from a landing

Photo courtesy Zhimin Mao

The participants also self-organized discussions on topics such as “how to make our planet a better place to live, the challenge of plastic, the importance of biodiversity, science diplomacy, and climate change mitigation and adaptation,” Mao said. “We learned from each other. There was also an Antarctic conservation biologist and a marine biologist assigned as science faculty on our trip, plus there was a whole range of expertise among the participants from physician to astrophysicist.”

Most days also included a citizen-science wildlife survey, where participants worked with scientists on the ship to observe and count birds, whales, and other animals. They also visited and spoke with scientists based at some of the Antarctic Peninsula’s research stations. In addition, the science faculty member and the expedition team from the ship gave many lectures ranging from the policy making and negotiation process behind the establishment of the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea to women’s history in Antarctica.

“We were able to observe first-hand the impact of climate change. Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming places on earth. Before I left, people warned that I’d be cold, even though it was summer down there. But there were days above 10°C (50°F). We could see, and we talked about, the impact of climate change on Antarctic ice sheet and different penguin species. We saw collapsing ice shelves and retreating glaciers.”

Mao wistfully added that, only a few months after her own visit, a research station on the Antarctic Peninsula recorded an all-time high temperature of more than 20°C (68°F).

Planning for a Legacy

Homeward Bound 4 Antarctic expedition, courtesy of Zhimin Mao

Photo courtesy Zhimin Mao

Mao said the image that will stay with her is sunset on Antarctica: “The sun didn’t set until 11 p.m., and it was a surreal pink sky reflected on the snow and water. Another amazing memory was the ‘silent cruise’ we took. We agreed there would be no talking, just silent meditation and observation. Antarctica shows you the best that the earth can be, because it’s so pristine, so beautiful. We just have to preserve and protect it for future generations.”

On that topic, she said one concern the HB4 participants shared was how the peninsula is being used, and whether it may succumb to the vicissitudes of its own popularity.

“We asked the expedition team if Antarctica is becoming a more affordable destination and if this is a problem. Their response is that they welcome visitors, because people will protect what they love,” she said.

She was pleased to learn about international self-regulation of tourism to minimize environmental impact. “We received a presentation on the environmental footprint of our own relatively small ship: how much fuel was used, where waste water goes, and so forth,” she said. “Even before the trip, we sought ways to offset the carbon footprint of this trip for everyone.”

Zhimin Mao (standing on right) and her Chinese "sisters" from Homeward Bound 4

Photo courtesy Homeward Bound

Mao added that one of the ideas the program emphasized is that people should “always have a legacy mindset, to strive for a bigger impact.” Seeing the human impact on the Antarctic Peninsula, the HB4 cohort decided to work together and support the establishment of an international marine protected area like the one on the Ross Sea. “The area around the peninsula is very fragile,” she said. “The problem with the peninsula is fishing rights. We’re working as a group to try to tackle that problem, through policy suggestions and action.”

She and her Chinese cohort are also trying to spread the word about Homeward Bound, the importance of environmental protection, and the role women can play.

“We interviewed 37 of our HB4 sisters and are writing a book about it for people in China. We felt people in China don’t have a good understanding of what an environment-focused career can be, and what path they can follow,” she said. Deep Blue will be published in Mandarin later this year, but Mao said the interviews were in English, so they’re also looking for a publisher who is interested in an English version.

The Network Continues

HB4 participants celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty

Photo courtesy Homeward Bound

She said she is grateful that the relationships she developed have continued. “I now have a network of over 100 women across 23 countries working in the STEMM field who I could collaborate with. We have a [Facebook] group that is supportive. You can really achieve anything you want when you have that sort of supportive environment — you feel anything can be done.”

As for how the voyage — and the leadership training — has changed her personally, Mao is equally open.

“For me work has always been crazy-busy. Homeward Bound reminded me that there are other parts of my life that I can’t ignore, that I need personal goals as well as professional ones,” she said. “It also has helped me prioritize, be goal focused and set boundaries.”

She added, “Also, now I know how to process negative thoughts and feedback. I can deal with these issues and be more confident, not blame myself. One of the things we learned is ‘how to rewrite the story’ — how to change the assumptions so the stories we tell ourselves will not drag us into false conclusions and prevent us from making a bigger impact.”

Does she have any advice or recommendations for women who may be reading this article? Her immediate response: “Apply for the program!”

After some contemplation, she added, “Don’t feel stressed by the idea of successful women must have it all. If you have enough support, you should strive for everything you want to achieve. But if you must make a choice between progressing in your career and caring for the family, pick the priorities you value the most.”

— Monica Hertzman