‘Young female scientists should be able to chase their dreams’

Professor Gudrun De Boeck (UAntwerp) will start an intensive Australian course this month that will eventually take her on an expedition to Antarctica, accompanied exclusively by top international women scientists. Through the Homeward Bound programme, she is helping to promote a more diverse, inclusive and sustainable world.

Gudrun De Boeck, one of the female professors in the University of Antwerp’s Department of Biology, has been selected to participate in the Homeward Bound programme, a prestigious Australian project. Over a period of ten years, Homeward Bound aims to offer its leadership programme to 1000 women from STEMM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine), so they can take the lead in building a more diverse, inclusive and sustainable world.

Shaping the planet

‘Our organization aims to foster women's leadership skills and increase their influence and impact on the decisions that shape our planet’, explains Fabian Dattner, the inspiring woman behind Homeward Bound. Since the initiative’s launch in 2016, 511 female scientists – from astronomers to South Pole experts – from 54 different countries have been selected to take part in this programme. The youngest is 21, the oldest is 70. They’re now being joined by the first UAntwerp scientist: Gudrun De Boeck, who studies how human activity, the changing climate and pollution affect the fish in our streams, rivers and oceans.

‘Like most women in science, I have to stand my ground in a world where women often remain a minority. It’s been quite a challenge to combine a career with children, and sometimes I’ve even taken them to work – and even on a fishing boat’, says De Boeck, who is the spokesperson of a large research group ECOSPHERE. ‘I think it’s important to be visible, and I want to encourage and help young female scientists to develop their talents and to pursue their dreams. That’s why I’m thrilled to have been selected for the Homeward Bound programme: it gives me a forum to spread my message.’

Workshop on Antarctica

The prestigious training course will start online in March 2021, culminating in a three-week intensive workshop in 2022 (postponed to November 2023), which will see 100 women from all over the world going on an expedition to Antarctica. ‘Of course, it’s not just some random destination. With its icebergs, glaciers and vast penguin colonies, the continent symbolises both the awe-inspiring beauty of nature and our planet's vulnerability to the threat of climate change.’

Only two other Belgian women have been selected for the project in the last few years. This year Céline Hanzen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), and Jill Peeters, a former weather presenter on Flemish TV channel VTM, were also invited.