Exploring the Last Frontier: CEAS Alumna to Set Out on Antarctica Expedition

By:    Brandon Pytel
Date: March 27, 2018

At the end of the year, CEAS alumna Kristen Howard departs on a three-week leadership expedition to Antarctica through the global initiative Homeward Bound.

photo of Antarctica sky and landscape.

Antarctica is an ideal destination for studying the effects of climate change. Photo courtesy of Shaun Howard.

Kristen Howard headshot

Howard (civil engineering '01) departs for Antarctica at the end of the year.

Immaculate, unspoiled and humbling, Antarctica is the world’s last great frontier. In December of this year, 80 women from various backgrounds and nationalities will set out on a 21-day expedition to this arctic continent to study its pristine landscape. They hope to learn of the effects of global warming on Antarctica, while gaining invaluable leadership experience and building a lasting support network.

The expedition is coordinated through Homeward Bound, a global initiative for women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – that aims to increase the influence of women in environmental policy decisions.

The project launched two years ago with the first voyage in December 2016. The second voyage recently returned from Antarctica in February 2018, and the third voyage departs on December 31, 2018. There to bring in the 2019 New Year from the Earth’s most southern continent will be Kristen Howard, a graduate of University of Cincinnati’s (UC) civil engineering program.

Seventy-nine other women professionals – ranging from lawyers to scientists to deans— from 28 different nationalities, will join Howard, a resident of Melbourne, Australia, on Homeward Bound’s third voyage.

The women will have plenty to keep them busy. In January, they started a 12-month leadership program to prepare for the expedition.

“I’m excited to work with these 79 other women and see what we can accomplish together,” said Howard. “It’s such a great mix of people: Women from different professions at various stages in their career all collaborating together — I can’t wait.”

Creating a Community for Women in STEM

So, why send 80 women to Antarctica every year? The leadership programs and voyages are part of Homeward Bound’s goal to collaborate with 1,000 women around the world over a 10-year period, preparing these women to shape the future of our planet.

“It’s fantastic that women graduating in STEM disciplines is on the rise,” said Howard. “Ten to fifteen years down the road, however, these same women in engineering fields tend to dwindle, specifically in leadership positions.”

This dwindling can be due to biases women in the engineering industry face. “For women in STEM, being a hard worker is not enough sometimes,” said Howard. “You need confidence, a public profile and a network – not just to grasp at opportunities but to create them.” Homeward Bound creates a new workforce of leaders and collaborators that can have a lasting effect through climate change policy.

group of penguins on Antarctica.

Native to Antarctica, penguins are one of the few species to call the continent home. Photo courtesy of Shaun Howard.

UC Paves the Way

Howard’s experience at UC has prepared her for this exciting journey. As a graduate of the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), Howard participated in UC’s nationally renowned cooperative education (co-op) program.

“UC and the co-op program gave me the opportunity to try a few different companies,” said Howard. “I worked for a government agency, a construction company and a private engineering firm. The co-op program gave me an avenue to figure out what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do after graduation.”

The co-op program, which pays engineering students $15 to $25 an hour, also gave Howard extra funds to travel. As she put it, she caught the travel bug. In 2004, her husband was accepted into a PhD program in Australia, and they were both excited for the opportunity. “UC and the co-op program gave me a solid foundation that let me find a job anywhere, including Australia,” said Howard. “UC also gave me this thirst for leadership and travel.”

For over ten years, Howard has worked with AECOM as a principal civil engineer. She is excited to apply the skills she’s learned in the professional field to Homeward Bound: “Often I work on a project or lead a design on the project where the parameter is already set, the business case is written and funds are allocated – it has already been determined what you’re going to do,” said Howard. “With the leadership network, visibility and communication through Homeward Bound, we are in position to shape projects and policies from the start.”

Engineering for a Sustainable Future

Civil engineering is especially susceptible to the impacts of energy creation and climate change. At AECOM, Howard works within the transportation and the energy sectors, working on metro lines, as well as the energy distribution and civil aspects of these projects.

“In civil engineering, whether you’re constructing a new road or building, you have an impact on the world and environment,” said Howard. “You have to ask yourself how you can make these projects more sustainable through innovation. For instance, how can I ensure that that storm water runoff won’t pollute the surrounding environment?’”

The site is intentional in its scientific implications. “When you look at Antarctica, you see the beauty of the continent,” said Howard. “But many times, you also see climate change first in Antarctica.”

Howard also sees this program as an opportunity to set the course for future women engineers. She encourages future women engineers to take risks, try new things and not let any self-doubt take over.

“Women sometimes ask themselves, ‘Am I good enough for this? Am I able to do this?’” said Howard. “This program is about reaching above what you’re capable of doing. Belief in oneself translates into confidence, leadership ability and a public profile, all of which can really make a difference.”

With the collaboration and visibility from a program like Homeward Bound, Howard is in a position to set responsible policy for a sustainable future.

Learn more about the 80 women on the 2019 expedition and follow their yearlong journey at Homeward Bound’s website. Follow Howard's individual journey on Twitter, LinkedIn and Chuffed