STEMM Trails: In Conversation with Dr Tina Schroeder

Dr Tina Schroeder is a medical researcher at UQ’s Institute of Molecular Bioscience (IMB) who investigates novel pain therapeutics from animal venoms. Throughout 2016, she took part in the inaugural Homeward Bound program alongside 76 top female scientists from across the globe.

Homeward Bound is a year-long initiative that aims to help women with scientific backgrounds develop their leadership and strategic potential, using science to build credence around the value of their voices and ideas.

Last year’s project in the largest-ever female-only expedition to Antarctica in December, with a focus on women in leadership and climate change.

Claire met with Tina to find out more about her experiences, and whether Antarctic penguins really are that cute.

Claire Barnes: How did you get involved with Homeward Bound?

Tina Schroeder: My husband spotted an advertisement via the Australian Academy of Science. He thought I’d be interested and encouraged me to apply. I might not have heard about it otherwise.

CB: What drew you to the program?

TS: As a woman in science, I’m always seeking like-minded people and role models. I’m lucky to be working alongside a lot of fantastic women, but I still ask myself: who else and what else is out there? It also seemed like a great opportunity to make connections across different disciplines and to do something completely different from anything I’ve done before.

CB: Naturally.

TS: I was curious to meet the others crazy enough to sign up! None of us knew what we were letting ourselves in for.

CB: (Laughs) And how did that go for you?

TS: It was great! Everyone on board was so passionate about their field. I was worried it’d be a ship full of 76 medical researchers, which would’ve been terribly boring. But no, there was an astronomer, a mathematician, climate change scientists, policy advisors to name a few disciplines…

CB: Did you ever have difficulties collaborating with people from vastly different fields?

TS: Not at all. The focus was to raise the voice of women in order to get them to the leadership table. On the expedition, our main discussion was on climate change. I don’t work in this area, but I certainly care about it.

Though we were from different backgrounds, we were able to learn from each other’s work and could strive towards a common goal. The diversity was enriching.

CB: Run me through a normal day on the ship.

TS: The days were long: we’d be up at 7am and would be working, learning, and researching until 10pm. There were certainly no sleep-ins. We would either go to shore or work on content, like personal strategy maps and emotional assessments, and talk about values, science communication, and our own visibility.

Ashore, we saw ice sheets literally melting in front of our eyes. We also visited three research stations where we spoke to scientists about the impact of climate change on their work and the environment around them. Sadly, as you would expect, there were very few female scientists at these stations.

CB: Any wildlife?

TS: Penguins! Seals and whales too. They were gorgeous.

CB: How did the projects work?

TS: We started in late 2015, about a year before the trip. There were a number of teleconferences, personality tests, and leadership workshops. My project involved looking at leadership of women with a science background through the power of storytelling.

If you ever ask about what difficulties a woman in science has faced to get to her stage in her career, she’ll find it enormously tricky to pinpoint anything specific. But, if you ask her to present her career path to you in a story, it becomes easier to specify setbacks and beneficial experiences. We asked Homeward Bound participants to write their own anonymous ‘Story Spine’. We then analysed these for common themes with a focus on positive leadership themes and hurdles.

As you can imagine, the ‘hurdles’ included many well-known problems that restrain women in science: lack of role models, unconscious bias, discrimination, bullying, everyday sexism, and unwelcoming environments.

You should apply!

CB: I think there are other women who are probably more eligible for this than I am.

TS: And this is exactly part of the problem: the imposter syndrome. It always seems like someone else is better or more worthy than you. We discussed this a lot on board the ship.

CB: What can we do to change this kind of feeling? And how do we normalise the fact that women are scientists too?

TS: I think things are changing: conversations are happening and the next generation seems to have a different attitude. But it’s slow. If we continue at this pace I swear it will take another 200 years to achieve anything substantial.

It’s important for workplaces to be aware of what hinders women and to work to reduce the impact of this.

The IMB is certainly striving towards this goal: for example, we are encouraged to not hold meetings or seminars outside of childcare hours. One of my colleagues, a 70-year-old male professor, recently remarked at the lack of female presenters at a conference advertised to us, and has been pushing for publishing an equity statement on our own conference website. When I see this kind of thing coming from him, I get very excited. The more people see this, the more visibility we receive, the more women attend and speak at conferences, the more normalised the idea of women in science becomes.

CB: Do you think the program will succeed?

TS: The target is 1000 women participants in 10 years. It’s ambitious, but Fabian [Dattner, founder of the project] is formidable. With her in charge, anything is possible.

CB: Have your experiences with the program changed how you work?

TS: Absolutely. I believe learning about emotional intelligence has made me a better communicator. We also learned about different personality types receive information and how that needs to influence the way you present your story, an important skill for a scientist. The way I interact with others has also changed.

I feel empowered by my group, and I now feel inspired to be more courageous in what I do and what I have the potential to do.

CB: And what would you say to any young female scientists reading this?

TS: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, just go for it. ‘Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking’.


If you are a woman with a science background with an interest in leadership and Homeward Bound sounds like it’s for you, check out their website here.

Words and Images (with permission) by Claire Barnes

Illustration by Charlie Gurman

Featured Image by Anna Apuli of Crapuli

Edits by Emma Kate Lewis

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