All-women team of scientists head to Antarctica from NZ for first time

Breanna Barraclough
Source: 1News

For the first time, there's a team of scientists from New Zealand going to Antarctica with one thing in common: they're all women.

It's a far cry from 1970, when Rosemary Askin was told she needed permission from a male relative in order to work at Scott Base, in case she needed medical attention from a male doctor.

"And the suggestion was made whether Peter [Barrett, founding director of the Antarctic Research Centre] would marry his PhD student so that he could be that male relative," Associate Professor Nancy Bertler, director of the Antarctic Science Platform, told 1News.

Askin became the first Kiwi woman to lead her own deep-field research programme in Antarctica.

Now, led by Alanna Alevropoulos-Borrill, the team including research fellow Alexandra Gossart and PhD candidate Francesca Baldacchino will be researching the Ross Ice Shelf, breaking new ground.

Bertler says they weren't deliberately trying to put together the first all-female research team.

"The treasure in this, for me, is that we're now at a time where we have enough female talent in our teams that it just happened naturally," she says.

"We didn't try to construct it. We just have enough capacity. And afterwards I realised, 'Wow, it's an all female team.'

"But we have enough female scientists that that can just happen, and that's really the big outcome for me."

The Ross Ice Shelf is a floating chunk of ice connected to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which makes up the bulk of the frozen continent. If it collapses, research indicates it could see sea level rise of 12 metres.

Isolating at Methven ahead of the flight to Antarctica, PhD student Alevropoulos-Borrill is enthusiastic about their work.

Alanna Alevropoulos-Borrill working in Antarctica.

"Antarctica is made up of ice streams, which are essentially just slow rivers of ice, and they respond to climate," she says.

"By going down and measuring how fast it's moving and how much that changes on a month-to-month basis, we can better understand what the climate causes of those changes are."

They'll be flying out around 200km away from Scott Base to carry out the work at six sites, gathering data from GPS units and installing others.

"We fly out on day trips, so it's considered a luxury that we get showers whereas people who are in the field camp on end, they don't get anything like that," Alevropoulos-Borrill says.

"There's a lot to do. We get to explore different heights and walks on [Ross] Island, it's awesome."

While this team marks a milestone, Bertler says there's still work to be done.

"For the women who are now empowered and do this work... we want to see them all the way through to the senior levels," she says.

"We need to find ways to empower and to continue to empower women to be able to follow the career path and not get stuck under a glass ceiling, which many still do."

The glass ceiling - when women aren't promoted to leadership roles - is a concern echoed by Alevropoulos-Borrill.

"We just need to be pushing this momentum to retain women and empower women to stay in these senior positions and these leadership positions, so that we can continue to just inspire younger generations and keep it all moving."

Bertler also acknowledges they're still working to address a racial gap, including a kāhui Māori (Māori advisory group) with the Deep South National Science Challenge.

"What we now really also want to achieve is to recruit Māori talent into that space. We have mixed teams, but it's still a very pākehā-dominated research area."

Associate Professor Nancy Bertler working in Antarctica.

She's encouraging young people to follow their passions and not to be put off.

"It's not so much that they should feel they couldn't enter, but rather we are headhunting them. We want the best people there. We want you and everyone who is keen."

Alevropoulos-Borrill suggests getting in touch with women already in those research positions.

"There's so much advice that you can get from these women having been through it before.

"Being able to see somebody that looks like you, in those positions, just really empowers you to be able to follow in their footsteps and do the same thing."

Bertler is blunt. "We need you."

"Most of the work that we do in Antarctica is around climate change and conservation, and it's really urgent work. It's important work," she says.

"Time is ticking and these are highly complex problems and we need the best minds to work on those and we need the best teams."

Alevropoulos-Borrill and the team are due to fly to Antarctica on Tuesday.

News tips or more information? Email Breanna Barraclough or follow @BreBarra on Twitter.