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From lab to icebergs: Sarah's amazing journey

Burnet Institute

05 June, 2017

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Image: Dr Sarah Charnaud travelled to Antarctica

Dr Sarah Charnaud always wanted to be an explorer. She ended up in science because, in her words, that was the modern day equivalent.

“You’re doing something for the good of humanity. But it’s also great because you’re discovering something new,” she said.

Just before Christmas, the 33-year-old malaria researcher swapped her small Melbourne laboratory for the vast open skies and tabular icebergs of Antarctica, where she learned not only about local wildlife and ocean currents, but about her own goals and how to reach them. She tells her story in our latest edition of Burnet’s IMPACT magazine.

The inaugural Homeward Bound expedition was the largest all-female trip to Antarctica, and comprised 76 women with backgrounds in science, in a three-week maritime project aimed at building leadership skills. Dr Charnaud, a malaria parasitologist, was chosen from close to 450 applicants to join the voyage, and funded the trip through crowd-funding, her own funds and support from Burnet.

Download your copy of the Autumn edition of IMPACT or subscribe today.

She sailed from the southernmost tip of Argentina knowing no one; nervous about three weeks at sea and ill with gastro after eating local mussels in the port town of Ushuaia. Her first roommate was a meteorologist from the Snowy River Hydro Scheme. Her second – everyone swapped half way through – was the head of a Canadian forestry NGO.

She spent her days at sea attending leadership and personal development courses, mingling with the other participants and, when they reached Antarctica, watching ice floes and animals.

“We watched lots of seals rolling around on the ice. We saw whales feeding on krill, humpbacks and minks, and lots of spectacular tabular icebergs,” Dr Charnaud said. “We went to research stations and met scientists studying respiration on the sea floor, seeing how incredibly far these glaciers had retreated in five or six years.”

She swam in water so cold that floating shards of ice cut her legs; found herself one day surrounded by whales, and spent an afternoon sitting with Australian explorer and expedition leader Greg Mortimer OAM , watching penguins jump into the water.

“One night I couldn’t bring myself to sleep and we stood up in the bridge at midnight and watched icebergs go by,” she said.

“It never gets dark, so it’s really hard to make yourself stop watching icebergs.”

On a more internal journey, Dr Charnaud said she learned from the leadership program but also from other participants.

“We learned how to define our own purpose and values, and work towards that. About the theory of change; about advocacy, effective policy and how to lobby the government. We learned how to facilitate a big group of people.”

Participants learned how to initiate difficult but crucial conversations, and diagnostic tests revealed individual strengths and weaknesses, with one-on-one coaching sessions where participants could address issues.

“Everyone has a fear of failure, of being seen, of people telling you you’re stupid,” Dr Charnaud said.

She was guided in preparing a ‘strategy map’ for her life, with five-year plans for different areas. While there was a focus on the essential need to address climate change, she said her personal priority remained health equity.

Born in South Africa, Dr Charnaud’s passion for health research came from early exposure to the illness and death of childhood friends.

“I know I’m a white person with power and privilege, and I want to use that to make a better world for women and disadvantaged communities,” she said.

“I want to take a much more active role in evidence-based work towards improving health equity. I met others who shared that passion and we will probably work together on that over the next 10 years, from our different perspectives.”

Dr Charnaud said the trip was life-changing, and a rare opportunity to spend time thinking about her true purpose and learning skills to pursue a fairer world.

“I feel like it’s given me more courage to put my neck out. I know there are strong people out there and if we work together we can create real change,” she said.

“I’m very lucky. How many people ever get the chance to really look at themselves and consider where they are, where they’re going? What a privilege to spend three weeks doing that.”

The program of activities created an environment where participants could speak openly with people they had only just met, she said.

“There, we had a licence to ask really deep questions and find out what drives people – I loved that.”

One unexpected effect of the journey was the benefit of a digital detox.

“There is next to no communication so you can’t be distracted by the bits and pieces at home. You are only there really analysing yourself, your thoughts and what we can do together – there’s no hiding,” she said.

Arriving home on Christmas Day after three weeks of blue skies and white icebergs, she said it was a welcome shock to see colours again, especially green. Antarctica, under pressure from regional warming, ocean acidification and loss of sea ice, was an inspiring location.

Dr Charnaud leaves Burnet to take up a new role at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, but will retain links with Burnet.

Download your copy of the Autumn edition of IMPACT or subscribe today.

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