Beginning of the journey

My Homeward Bound journey started with a postcard from Antarctica.

It was addressed to my husband Theo. It doesn’t happen every day that we receive a postcard from such a far away place where mostly only penguins live, so I was curious to know who sent it. Theo told me that it was from his colleague participating in some women-in-STEM program. Theo supported her fundraising campaign to fund her trip to Antarctica and therefore the postcard landed on our table. I was trying to figure out what the program was about, but he didn’t know any more details. From what he said it sounded like “going on holidays to an exotic location and tweeting about some social issue (like women in STEM) on the way”. Not very exciting. But Theo promised to chat with the colleague and find out more. He did and this is how I learned about Homeward Bound. 

I learned that it was not just about the Antarctica trip. The whole year of leadership training for women in STEM — this sounded much more valuable. I thought that it was all nice and reasonable, but nothing for me. “Leadership training for women in STEM” made me think of all these programs teaching you how to compete for positions, grants, salaries, publications, acknowledgement and such to overcome the gender bias in STEM. Nothing I was ever concerned about. As an anarchist, I had very different ideas on what science should be about and was never interested in climbing the ladder and succeeding in career making.

But one aspect caught my attention. The environmental focus of Homeward Bound. Something I truly cared about. “Mother nature needs her daughters” sounded emotional and appealing. So I kept reading and exploring. I found that the concept of leadership in Homeward Bound had nothing to do with career building, but was rather about empowering women to contribute and make a difference. That the program was all about flat hierarchies and collaboration rather than competition. Soon I realized that Homeward Bound could be exactly what I was looking for.

Throughout my academic career as a computer scientist, I’ve been working in many different application fields: language processing, robotics, artificial intelligence, computational biology. I kept changing topics and applications trying to find something I would truly believe in. But everywhere I discovered the same pattern. With a very few exceptions, topics and approaches were chosen to benefit the promotion of the scientists. Idealistic goals of science were replaced with career building and racing for funding. Because of the highly hierarchical organization, PIs were put into an unreasonably powerful position, which most of them misused. These observations made me deeply disappointed in academia. 

While reading about Homeward Bound, I realized that I very much cared about making science serve our planet and communities and such topics as alternative leadership structures, unconscious bias, diversity in leadership and academia, connection between western science and indigenous knowledge. Here is a video of interviews with my friends discussing some of these topics.

During my modest leadership experience, I was trying to implement some of the ideas. As a volunteer data scientist, I started processing data for marine biologists and ecologists from Hawai’i. Whenever I had a chance, I have also been giving lectures at educational institutions of Hawai’i trying to inspire local young people to explore STEM.  But it was all on such a small scale. I needed more skills to bring ideas to reality. And I needed a network of people sharing values to do it together. Homeward Bound looked like it could help me with both. So I decided to apply.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Talking to Kate Duncan, a Homeward Bound alumna and faculty, who happened to be the sender of the magic postcard, helped a lot. My biggest doubt concerned fundraising, but it’s a story for a different post. I did apply and got accepted, which I am very grateful for. Being a part of Homeward Bound already changed my perspective and inspired me to do things I have never imagined myself doing, for example running workshops on climate change, implicit bias and ally skills, joining social media, starting fundraising, talking about biases and climate change to high school students, organizing a Climathon. It allowed me to meet wonderful people. My journey has just started, and there’s so much more to follow. Yay!!!