Metro-East Living

O’Fallon native shares Antarctica journey with local students

Research scientist Melissa Haeffner talks about her trip to Antarctica

O’Fallon native Melissa Haeffner went on a Homeward Bound trip to Antarctica to become a better leader in science with other women. Along the way, she went on a true polar plunge and met more penguins; now back home she’s sharing her knowledge wit
Up Next
O’Fallon native Melissa Haeffner went on a Homeward Bound trip to Antarctica to become a better leader in science with other women. Along the way, she went on a true polar plunge and met more penguins; now back home she’s sharing her knowledge wit

Michelle Schwoebel’s fifth-grade classes at Douglas Elementary in Belleville are filled with smart students, she says, and girls especially are interested in science.

They’ll come in before school just to talk, Schwoebel says, but once that bell rings and class starts, the girls clam up.

“This year’s (female) fifth graders are very quiet,” she said, and often don’t want to answer questions because they might be wrong. It’s specific to this year’s fifth graders, she says.

“A lot will phrase it like, ‘I’m not exactly sure,’ or ‘I don’t know, but’,” she said. “Overall, they have an idea of what they could be, but they don’t want to be wrong.”

Boys? “They aren’t as worried about it,” she said.

The gender confidence disparity was evident to a visiting social scientist on Tuesday, there to talk about her trip to Antarctica. When Melissa Haeffner, 38, would ask the class questions, boys’ hands would shoot up and their answers would start with “I think.” Girls would slowly, reluctantly answer, starting with “I don’t know, but...”

It’s definitely part of communication of women to really be cognizant of how we’re speaking and to project ourselves as confident in our knowledge.

Melissa Haeffner, on women in science

It’s a problem not unfamiliar to professional female scientists.

“Oh my God yes, we talked about that,” Haeffner said later of the discussions about how women in science present themselves and their findings while on the all-women trip to Antarctica in December. “It’s definitely part of communication of women to really be cognizant of how we’re speaking and to project ourselves as confident in our knowledge.”

She was one of 76 female scientists on the inaugural Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica, where the women learned leadership skills and how to improve communication among their various fields. Organizers chose Antarctica because of the continent’s importance in measuring climate change, Haeffner said.

Her trip last week to her hometown of O’Fallon included visits to several classes at St. Clare Catholic School in O’Fallon and O’Fallon Township High School, part of a thank-you tour to those who supported her GoFundMe page to cover the $15,000 it cost to go to Antarctica.

‘I study the scientists’

The Douglas Elementary fifth graders wanted to talk about penguins. Haeffner saw a lot of penguins on her three-week trip to the southernmost continent, but had to keep reminding the students that she is not a penguin expert.

She first asked the students what scientists do and was peppered with responses about dinosaurs, stars, the Earth, planets and animals.

“I don’t do any of that, and I’m still a scientist,” she told them. “I study the scientists themselves.”

She is a post-doc researcher at the Utah State University, specializing in environment and society.

“I study water, but I study how people manage water,” she said.

The work has taken her all over the United States and around the world, with special projects in Ghana. Her dissertation was done in Baja, Mexico, where she spent eight months.

“If I had to give advice to anybody, it would be to do your dissertation on a beach,” she said during her trip home to the metro-east.

There were no two scientists with the same specialty on the trip to Antarctica, she told the class, and the women on the expedition included a palaeontologist, biologist, geologist and an astrophysicist. Haeffner is a social scientist, she told the students. She asks research questions and tests theories, just as other scientists do.

Her trip to Antarctica was with women from all over the world “to raise awareness about climate change and improve leadership,” she said.

“It’s a really cool continent, and not a lot of people get to go,” she said.

The ship they took departed from Argentina for a two-day trip across the Drake Passage. “Have you been to Argentina? You should go; there’s no mosquitoes,” she said.

There are tourist ships in the area, and the ship’s 40 crew members kept them safe and well-fed, which are career options for the students if they want to work in Antarctica, she said.

“Or you can go to school for forever, and be a scientist. Or be an engineer,” who maintains the buildings researchers use in the extreme temperatures, Haeffner said.

If I had to give advice to anybody, it would be to do your dissertation on a beach.

Melissa Haeffner, who wrote her dissertation titled “Vulnerability to drought in the La Paz, Mexico watershed” in Baja, Mexico

She showed a number of photos to the class, most of which had women dressed much alike. A heavy coat, five shirts, four pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, rubber boots and a hat were layered between Haeffner and the rigors of Antarctica, she told the class. But all the women needed for a dip into the ocean was a swimsuit.

Haeffner took two “polar plunges” into the frigid waters as snow fell and ice formed around the ship, she said, pantomiming to the class how she was in long enough to say “It’s cold! It’s cold!” and get out again. Women who took the dive later, when it was colder, walked away with cuts on their legs from the ice in the water.

Learning to lead

Haeffner went to Antarctica with dozens of other female scientists not to study penguins or shrinking ice, but to improve their leadership and communication skills within their science communities and the public.

The expedition was founded by Fabian Dattner, a leadership expert, and Jess Melbourne Thomas, an Antarctic Marine ecological modeler. Dattner had spent most of her career helping top-level business executives lead and communicate, Haeffner said, and has now turned her attention to women in science.

In Haeffner’s day job at Utah State, she teaches research methods to students pursing master’s and doctorates, as well as working with local leaders and their water management. She’s spent two years creating public works databases — “the most super-boring work” she says — because municipalities track water usage differently. Until her latest project introduced them, the water managers of nine area cities in the area of Logan, where Utah State is, had not met one another.

Her career is “very interdisciplinary,” she said, to “study the interactions between people and the environment.”

Antarctica gave her the opportunity to do both. They had 16 days on land, which lasted about three hours each. The penguin experts, biologists and geologists studied the land; Haeffner studied the people.

Scientists need to talk directly to the public, Haeffner said, even when it is unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Part of the Antarctic adventure was to increase the visibility of female scientists, even though there was no Wi-Fi in Antarctica, she said. There will be a book about the women on the trip, and the Homeward Bound website, whose motto is “Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters,” has links to blogs and Instagram for more information.

“Academia is a different genre of writing, so it’s hard to write in 140 characters” she said of Twitter. “And a lot of scientists don’t feel comfortable, and if they don’t do it right the first time, that’s a turnoff.”

The American public is not prepared for science language, she said, and even scientists in different fields might have different meanings for words like “sustainability” and “resistance.”

She said many scientists are worried about federal funding, because the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provide information that they use.

“The NOAA has daily updates on their websites, and that’s important to me with water management,” she said. “If cities don’t know there’s a drought coming...”

Back in Schweobel’s classroom stuffed with two classes’ worth of fifth graders, Haeffner was leading the class through calculations to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit and promising to later send videos of a penguin projectile pooping.

Cadence Greene and Ruby Nussbaum, both 11, thought the presentation was pretty neat.

“I thought she answered everything pretty well,” Ruby said.

Cadence liked the photos of the icebergs and penguins, and the story of the ice forming around the boat. Both girls enjoy science classes, they say, but neither plans for a career in it. Cadence plans a career as a professional women’s softball player, and Ruby plans to be a professional swimmer, or perhaps a swim coach.

More about Melissa Haeffner

  • She made a book about Ghana’s water walkers, who are girls who attend school part-time and sell bagged water to afford further education. Go to for more information.
Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat