On November 12 science communicator and explorer Dr Niamh Shaw joined 73 other female scientists and engineers from 18 countries as they began their 19-day voyage to the Antarctic. 

She began the first leg of the epic adventure on Wednesday, November 8, leaving from Ireland to begin the long journey to the southern hemisphere.

“This is not a vacation,” says Dr Shaw. “We will be working and living together in cramped conditions, surviving extreme cold, rough seas and 12- to 15-hour working days. 

'Step up and speak out about climate change'

"We’re on a mission for climate change as part of a global leadership programme for women led by Australian not-for-profit Homeward Bound projects. They have pledged to bring 1,000 women in the sciences (aka Women in STEM) to this region, so that they step up and speak out about climate change.

“I chose to be part of this mission because as a respected communicator of science and space topics, a fellow of the Explorers Club and an ESA champion for space science education, I felt a responsibility to assist in breaking down barriers around climate change.

“I want to become a better advocate for climate change and work closely with people in Ireland and abroad to find more effective ways of engaging with the topic on a personal and community level. I understand from Homeward Bound and others who have witnessed first hand the devastating impact of climate change on the Antarctic landscape, that this experience has a profound and life-changing effect on people.

“During the pandemic, I joined the sixth cohort of 100 women, as we began an extensive and challenging leadership programme to support women in science. The programme focused on improving our clarity, confidence, shared vision and strategic capabilities.

"We will now complete the final portion at this iconic and challenging landscape which is experiencing some of the most severe consequences of climate change. We voyage to the Antarctic to witness first-hand the implications of climate change on our planet.”


Homeward Bound has worked hard on minimising the impact of this voyage on the Antarctic ecosystem, rolling out a vigorous biosecurity and carbon footprint offset programme throughout the voyage.

Calculating and offsetting travel carbon footprint

“We have received extensive training on calculating and offsetting our travel carbon footprint,” says Dr Shaw, “and there are strict guidelines on cleaning our baggage and footwear before we even leave our homes. These are all part of strict biosecurity measures to ensure we don’t accidentally contaminate this very special continent.

"When on land or ice, we wear specialist rubber boots provided by the boat which are vigorously cleaned before and after embarkation, we use a special waterproof bag called a ‘dry bag’ which can only contain cameras notebooks etc.

"No food is allowed on land or ice and we cannot collect stones or other objects under any circumstances. Lastly, there’s no sitting or lying on the ice allowed, and because of the threat of avian flu we have to remain at least five metres from all wildlife, no matter how cute the penguins are.”

Dr Shaw has been working with a number of groups in Ireland in the lead up to her Antarctic mission: “While men have been exploring the Antarctic since the mid 19th century, the first woman to set foot on the continent was in 1935; this was Caroline Mikkelsen, the wife of a Norwegian whaling captain.

'Raise awareness of women in science'

"I wanted to use my expedition to raise awareness of women in science from Ireland's past whose stories and achievements have largely gone unrecognised. I worked with a women’s crafts group in Gorey (partnering with WWETB, Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board) who created a patchwork quilt (made up of 12 panels all from sustainable and pre-loved materials) to bring with me, to honour some of these inspiring women scientists.

"Women such as Annie Maunder, Kathleen Lonsdale, Agnes Clerke who blazed their own trail in science at a time when it was not encouraged for them to pursue the sciences. We owe these women a great debt and I’d like to dedicate my voyage to highlighting their stories.

“I have also been working with the Environmental Awareness Office of Laois County Council to create an educational programme and teacher resources for the classroom on climate change and the extreme environment of the Antarctic. I will be providing classroom activities on these topics during my voyage, facilitated through the Laois Education Centre.”

Dr Shaw will not be the only Irish woman on the voyage. She is joined by Emer Dennehy, an energy engineer working at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and atomic physics professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science & Technology, Japan, Professor Sile ni Chormaic.

Other Irish graduates of Homeward Bound include climate activist and co-founder of Change by Degrees Dr Tara Shine and Dr Jessamyn Fairfield, physicist at the University of Galway and founder of Bright Club Ireland, a science communication initiative bringing comedy to academic research .

Each woman has the responsibility to raise funds for their place on the voyage, and between the leadership programme and voyage costs, that amounts to an investment of more than €20,000 per person.

“I won’t deny that the fundraising aspect of this mission has been challenging,” says Dr Shaw. 

'Overwhelmed by support'

“As a freelance science communicator and educator, this was especially difficult. But I’ve been overwhelmed by the support from people on my crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe. 

"Everybody who supports me will at the very least receive a postcard sent from the Penguin Post Office in Antarctica. I’m also indebted to Laois County Council, Gas Networks Ireland and Abbott Ireland for their support. Thanks to the kindness of all these people and organisations, I’m so proud to be able to participate in this project and share my Antarctic experiences with Ireland.

“The success of my work in the past has always been in sharing the human side of science through personal experiences of living in extremes, most recently a Mars analogue science assignment in the Kalahari desert of Botswana. Armed with first-hand experience of climate change at the Antarctic, I hope to bring the same human understanding of this complex topic when sharing my adventures with the Irish public.

"I aim to leave the boat in early December with a stronger commitment to the climate agenda and armed with a personal strategy to lead the change in Ireland and on the global stage."