Cold researcher heads south to thaw leadership potential

Image of Sandra Kerbler

GRDC-funded University of Western Australia PhD student Sandra Kerbler is one of just 78 women worldwide to have been chosen to attend a science-based leadership program in Antarctica in December 2016.

PHOTO: UWA

Antarctica seems an appropriate destination for a researcher investigating how plants respond to cold stress. However, for GRDC-funded University of Western Australia (UWA) PhD student Sandra Kerbler a trip to the icy continent promises much broader professional development.

Ms Kerbler will be one of just 78 women worldwide to attend a three-week leadership and climate science program in Antarctica in December 2016. Known as Homeward Bound, the initiative is the brainchild of Australian entrepreneur Fabian Dattner, who is committed to raising the number of women in science-based leadership positions around the world.

“Over the next decade the goal is to support a global collaboration of 1000 female scientists in leadership roles to shape policy and decision-making based on the best science possible,” Ms Kerbler says.

She notes that while equal numbers of men and women take up PhD and postdoctoral positions, by the time careers progress to a professorial level women make up only 10 per cent.

“In my faculty alone there are just three women in leadership roles compared with 20 men,” Ms Kerbler says.

As the first woman in her family to go to university, Ms Kerbler never imagined she would be undertaking a PhD. “But since discovering science there is nothing else I would rather do,” she says.

The Homeward Bound initiative offers Ms Kerbler a unique opportunity to develop the strategic thinking and skills necessary to change the way women are represented in science.

Homeward Bound has teamed up with the Australian Antarctic Division to deliver the leadership program, which will comprise three six-day blocks of leadership skills, polar and climate science, and strategic thinking. The program has also attracted the support of primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, documentary maker Franny Armstrong and Dr Susan David, head of coaching at the Harvard Medical School faculty.

“Women already possess many of the skills central to effective leadership but we don’t always possess the confidence to take a seat at the leadership table,” Ms Kerbler says.

To this end, the final six-day block of learning aboard the Antarctic teaching vessel will involve workshops on best practice in how to articulate, design, measure and execute strategic plans. “By the time we land back in South America we will have developed a concrete sense of how and where we will make a difference in our own backyards.”

In the 12 months leading up to the Antarctic trip, the women will be involved in a broad range of community-based projects to raise awareness of the Homeward Bound program and its goals.

Along with implementing her Homeward Bound learning, Ms Kerbler will also face another challenge on her return from Antarctica – the writing up of her PhD thesis, which she has been working on for the past three years.

The research attempts to understand how plants respond under cold and frost stress with the ultimate goal of improving the resilience of crop plants in a changing environment.

“I’ve been examining how plant mitochondrial respiration is modified under cold stress in the hope of uncovering energetic bottlenecks. By determining which molecular pathways become limiting in the cold, we can potentially find ways to bypass them and create crops that keep producing despite extreme temperatures such as frost.”

More information:

Sandra Kerbler’s Homeward Bound journey (also follow this link to find out more about Ms Kerbler's fundraising efforts.)

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GRDC Project Code GRS10694

Region Overseas, West