Feb 13 2017

AK CASC Fellow travels to Antarctica to discover leadership, inspiration, and relentless optimism

Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center’s (AK CASC) graduate fellow Joanna Young along with seventy-five other women were given the opportunity to travel where very few have on the three-week Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica. 

“The trip itself was just stunning,” explains Young. “It’s an incredibly remote, isolated, and beautiful landscape.” 

Antarctica may seem desolate, but Young was surprised to witness so much life. 

Young saw a variety of wildlife during her time on and off the ship. At one point, she recalls their ship being encircled by humpback whales and even getting to walk amongst a colony of 200,000 penguins.

This magnificent landscape was one of many highlights for Young during the expedition. However, it is changing.

“Even though there aren’t many visitors to Antarctica and it’s so well protected and regulated by the International Antarctic Treaty, it’s still being impacted so heavily by the actions of humans on the rest of the planet,” she explains.

This made the expedition even more important. During the three weeks, Young explains that it was a time for inner-reflection, learning, and developing leadership and science communication skills. 

Each day, participants would do several leadership activities, which included navigating through difficult conversations as a leader and carving out personal and professional mission and strategy maps. These activities allowed for personal reflection in order to help the participants move forward as leaders. 

“You can’t be a good leader if the work you’re doing doesn’t align with your core values,” says Young. 

Participants were also tasked with giving a three minute presentation of their current work. Through this exercise, participants were able to better identify the take-home message from their work and effectively deliver that message to a general audience. 

“Learning to package everything in a three minute nugget is really useful and important,” says Young.  “I think of how many times in day to day life where I’m given only a few minutes to discuss my work.”

Young explains that during their time spent in Antarctica she was also given the chance to learn more about its ecosystem. “Climate change is definitely impacting that landscape and its species,” she says.  

Participants heard from researchers stationed in Antarctica that have observed alarming changes. These changes include retreating glaciers, changes in the length of seasons, and relocation of wildlife populations.

Within each full day of curriculum, the participants got to spend a few hours on land to explore this changing landscape and see some of these changes first-hand. They were transported from the ship on zodiacs that scooted around icebergs and near old volcanic calderas. They hiked in designated zones of ragged rocky areas, snow covered beaches, cascading glaciers, and sea ice frozen to the land. 

Throughout the day, networking was essential as well. Joanna explains that it was an honor to meet all the fellow participants and faculty, to learn from their experiences and knowledge. 

“These women have incredible career trajectories, stories, life adventures, and accomplishments,” she says. 

Young especially found common camaraderie amongst the women participating in the expedition. 

“They all work in global change, are sustainability minded, wanting to be leaders in their field, and have a passion for adventure,” she explains. 

At the end of each day, the participants were shown interviews of leading women around the world with messages to all the participants on board, including an interview from primatologist and United Nations Messenger of Peace Jane Goodall and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres. 

Young was particularly inspired by Figueres’ interview and two words have resonated with her ever since: relentless optimism. 

“That captures what I feel working in climate science,” says Young. “That’s what we need and that’s been my approach. With relentless optimism we can make progressive changes to help start mitigating and adapting to climate change.” 

Young is now looking to apply all that she has learned from this expedition to her career as a glaciologist and to further promote leadership as an instructor for AK CASC-sponsored Girls on Ice Alaska. Furthermore, she will be hosting a 2-day leadership workshop for fellow early-career scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks this spring, to pass on what she has learned. For Young, “it’s only just the beginning.” 

Young’s participation in this expedition was made possible by the AK CASC and the UAF Resilience and Adaptation Program.