Home ContentFlourishing Woman: Jessica Brainard

Flourishing Woman: Jessica Brainard

Published : August 17, 2017

Jessica Brainard is a Curator at the Western Australian Museum. She lives in Fremantle and is one of five Western Australian women who will participate in Homeward Bound’s all-female Antarctic expedition in February 2018.

Photo credit © Connie Hanscom 2017​


Interview conducted by Juanita Pirozzi

Congratulations on taking part in the Homeward Bound all female expedition to Antarctica. How does it feel to be taking part in this journey?


I’m incredibly excited and honoured to be taking part in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s also quite humbling to be part of this impressive cohort of women in science. What excites me most about Homeward Bound is the chance to help build a network of like-minded and empowered women in science, representing 13 different countries from around the world. Having recently turned 50, I feel a strong desire to challenge myself and to 'play a bigger game' by getting involved in a larger global network.

Of course, the opportunity to visit Antarctica is a huge drawcard. From the time I visited the Arctic Circle years ago, I’ve dreamed of venturing to the South Pole. I’m delighted to take part in the Homeward Bound vision. As the tagline states, “Mother Nature needs her daughters.”

What does this expedition mean to you as a scientist and as a woman? Is there a difference? 


Homeward Bound is a women’s leadership initiative first and foremost. While all participants have a science background, we’re coming together as women to develop leadership, communication, and strategic capabilities to influence and contribute to policy and decision-making as it informs the future of our planet. Research shows that, in general, women have a recognised ability to effectively collaborate, be inclusive, share a legacy mindset, and care for shared resources. It’s these qualities as women that we aim to harness to affect change. By taking this journey to Antarctica together, we envision our shared experience will create strong bonds, inspire action, and lead to extraordinary collaborations.

Antarctica was selected as the backdrop for this global leadership course because of its remote and physically challenging location. It’s also a living laboratory where you can see the effects of climate change first hand. I anticipate that spending time in this extreme environment will drive home the need for women to work collaboratively and cross-disciplinarily to tackle the big global challenges we face.

How are you preparing for the intense cold temperatures? 


To be fair, we’ll be voyaging to Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere summer. That said, I lived in Alaska for many years, so I’ve had experience braving cold weather. The trick is to dress in layers. These days, thanks to the innovations in materials science, there are all sorts of hi-tech gear available to help you stay toasty.

How did you become involved with Homeward Bound? 


I’m originally from the Unites States. Disheartened by the current presidential politics back home and recent policies that undermine both women and climate science, I’ve been searching for an opportunity to step up and contribute my voice to the larger conversation about these issues. I first heard about the Homeward Bound program through an article in the local newspaper. When I read about the 2016 inaugural journey to Antarctica and the vision of this global initiative, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.

How has Homeward Bound benefitted you as a woman? 


While I’m just a few months into this year-long leadership training, I’ve already gleaned many insights from my participation in Homeward Bound. Because the program requires a significant financial investment, I’ve had to push beyond my comfort zone and embark on a fundraising campaign. I’ve teamed up with four other amazing women here in Perth to raise funds and awareness about gender equity in science. Our Team WA Homeward Bound 2018 has served as a microcosm for the challenges that arise when working collaboratively. While we all have a background in science, each of us has a very different working style and brings different life experiences to the team. We’ve had to learn how to manage expectations, speak up, and let our individual voices be heard while also listening to others. We’ve also had to learn how to effectively reach consensus and negotiate in the decision-making process. These skills are helpful for anyone, but I think especially for women as we search for new leadership paradigms.

You’ve mentioned that you are passionate about helping women in science to find their voice. How did you find yours? 


Finding one’s ‘voice’ is a process — it doesn't happen overnight. I’d say that I’m still in the process of learning how to own my power and speak up in a way that people can actually hear me. That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Homeward Bound. The program offers an opportunity to learn how to give and receive feedback in a safe and constructive way and challenges participants to become more visible in their sphere of influence. As a science communicator, I’m particularly passionate about showcasing the stories of women in science. In my role as Curator, helping to develop exhibitions for the new Western Australian Museum, I have the opportunity to highlight the behind-the-scenes work of the Museum, including that of our female scientists. My aim is to show the human face of science and break down stereotypes — not all scientists work in a lab and wear a lab coat! 

How would you encourage other women to find their voice regardless of what sector they work in? 


Voice is all about channelling one’s passion and not being afraid to stand up for your convictions. The first step is to identify what you’re passionate about. Establish your values and model them in what you do, how you speak, and how you treat others. While it’s important to speak up and contribute to the conversation, it’s equally important to know when to sit back, listen, and see what you can learn. I’m offering that advice to myself as much as anyone. As women we tend to be more in touch with our emotions. But our greatest asset can also be our biggest downfall. Learning how to regulate my emotions and not take things personally is, perhaps, my greatest opportunity for growth.

What challenges did you experience as a woman of science? 


Science touches every part of our present world — and will shape every part of our future. Yet, globally, women hold less than 25% of executive roles in science. While the stats are much better for women in my particular field, the museum sector, in all STEM subjects, women continue to be underrepresented in higher positions. From postgraduate level onwards, women seem to be less successful – or keen – to pursue higher career paths, a phenomenon known as the “leaky pipeline”. I made the personal choice years ago not to have children. However, I witness my female colleagues struggling to juggle work and family life. Over the course of my career, I’ve also been no stranger to negative gender dynamics in the workplace—from sexism to sexual harassment. These are real issues that too many women face regardless of profession.

Who are your role models? What do you admire about them?


I look to the great environmentalists of our time for inspiration, including Dr Jane Goodall and Dr Sylvia Earle. Pioneering women in science, both have leveraged their passion and tenacity to implement environmental conservation policies. Dr Goodall has instilled the power of the feminine into every aspect of her work — from her chimpanzee research to her global efforts to raise awareness and inspire action for endangered species and vulnerable habitats. Dr Earle’s lifetime of work has enriched us with a deeper understanding of how to live sustainably and symbiotically with marine life. Both Dr Goodall and Dr Earle will serve as filmed faculty on the 2018 Homeward Bound voyage.

Closer to my heart, my brother Luke has served as both a role model and an inspiration. A pioneer in environmental justice law, Luke worked tirelessly defending low-income and Indigenous communities against corporate polluters. Luke died in a car crash in 2009. He was 46. Right before his accident, Luke set off to visit many of the places on his bucket list, including Antarctica. In part, Luke’s legacy is my inspiration to participate in Homeward Bound. I grew up in the shadow of an environmental superhero. My path has focused on environmental education and science communication rather than advocacy. But given the state of world right now and the assault on both women and science, I’m ready to step up on behalf of our planet and for those who do not have a voice at the decision-making table.

Flourish Magazine would like to thank Jessica for taking part in this interview.

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