Antarctica is not known for its hospitable environment or its warmth.
But for Paola Tello Guerrero, a 32-year-old from Bucaramanga, Colombia, Antarctica represents connection, passion and inspiration. The icy continent lit an inner fire that she is taking around the world.
Tello was one of 80 women scientists from 20 countries to visit Antarctica in February as part of a leadership outreach initiative for women with science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine backgrounds. Called “Homeward Bound,” the initiative aims to create a network of 1,000 female scientists working on sustainability initiatives during a period of 10 years.
She also founded “Antártida para Valientes” (Antarctica for the brave), a Colombia-based project to advance the role of women in science, communicate about climate change and teach children and young people about the importance of environmental stewardship.
From Algorithms to Advocacy
Tello studied physics at the Industrial University of Santander and discovered geoscience during an internship at the Colombia Petroleum Institute run by Ecopetrol, the country’s national oil company.
“The opportunities for a physicist are very broad; we are good at math, programming and describing phenomena,” she said. “The field where I found the opportunity to use my skills was in geosciences. The Earth is the most fascinating topic to study, and it is complex at the same time. That’s why the Earth sciences need experts from different areas.”
After four years working in Colombia, Tello moved to England and took a job at ALS Petrophysics. She maintained ties to Colombia and became involved in professional women’s networks in her native country and in the United Kingdom.
In 2016, she discovered Homeward Bound, an Australia-based program focusing on leadership development, strategic capability, science collaboration and science communication. Participants were trained in three stages during the 12-month period, with content delivered virtually, on the ground in Ushuaia, Argentina and on-board the ship in Antarctica.
The project fascinated Tello, who understood that participants needed three characteristics: a science background, leadership ability and a passion for climate advocacy.
As a physicist involved in women’s leadership initiatives, she checked the first two boxes.
“The third one was the trickiest,” she said. “Though I have a passion for climbing, hiking, cycling and yoga – all related to nature – I needed a stronger argument.”
She realized that, because she works in the oil and gas industry, she might not be considered by some to be the most likely advocate for climate change. But she wasn’t ready to give up.
“I had an ace up my sleeve,” she said. “I explained that, because climate change is our most important and urgent topic, we need efforts and solutions from inside and outside of all industries. The oil and gas industry plays a crucial role in climate change solutions.”
Homeward Bound accepted Tello’s application and welcomed her into the program.
Challenges and Rewards
In the year prior to traveling to Antarctica, Tello worked a full-time job and raised $16,000 for travel and underwent a series of training sessions with fellow participants.
She said, “2017 was just a crazy and wonderful year for me, from gathering the resources to finance the expedition; keeping on top of my work and the program at the same time; constant learning about Antarctica, leadership, project development, climate change; meetings and discussions with the group of scientists. There were so many challenges.”
The challenges improved her focus and her determination, she said.
“I decided to give the best of me to this opportunity, dedicating every night, every effort, and saying ‘no’ to all other activities,” she said. “At the end it was all worth it.”
A particularly fond memory was having lunch with Susan Scott, an Australian physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017 for her work with gravitational waves.
Tello said most days on the ship involved research topic discussions, visits to scientific stations and landings.
“During ship sessions, we had a mandatory break every time we saw whales,” she said.
Tello said programs like Homeward Bound give women a voice, both in science and in their communities.
“Each of us is conscious of the value of this opportunity and the responsibility involved,” she said. “These programs are made to call the attention of the society to important topics like the gender pay gap, the female underrepresentation in leadership roles, vulnerability of women in front of climate change.”
Taking Antarctica to the World
In addition to benefitting personally from the experience, Tello decided to use her experience to help those in her home country.
“Coming from a small city in Colombia, I never imagined myself going to the last continent to be explored by man,” she said. “When you are in a multicultural program like Homeward Bound, you really are the representation of a country,” she said. “I brought the Colombian flag and the best values of Colombian society with me: hard work, creativity, adaptability and a deep social commitment.”
Since returning from Antarctica, Tello has worked to share her experience with others and to continue pursuing her two passions of children and education.
Through Antártida para Valientes, Tello engages universities, grade schools and other institutions in discussions about Antarctica, climate change and women in the sciences. She visited seven cities in Colombia and two in England and spoke with more than 5,000 people in 2017.
Her “Letters to the Penguins” initiative teaches children about the human impact on the environment and encourages children to come up with solutions for caring for oceans and managing energy more efficiently.
Tello explained how sharing experiences in Antarctica helps create a dialogue with people she visits.
“Antarctica is a territory of science, peace and collaboration thanks to the agreement signed in 1959,” she said. “It is the perfect symbol to transmit good values, encourage the curiosity and the passion for science in children and adults and promote actions for the care of the planet.”
Managing a project in Colombia from England represents a new challenge for Tello.
“I sleep few hours, work very hard, and up until recently the project was on my shoulders,” she said.
Recently the Antartida para Valientes gained national and international media attention, and with the attention came volunteers.
Tello now enjoys support from 18 companies that provide services or goods for school visits and for her expedition, and her employer values her social contributions and allowed her to take time off work to travel to Antarctica.
She said she is on a mission to make this pilot project a worldwide reality.
“There is a group of people that believe we can replicate this initiative and get more messages to the penguins, which is one of the outcomes of the project, we are dreaming to create small ambassadors of the planet at home, schools in the parks, everywhere!” she said. “The children tell us how they will be brave to care for the planet. They feel brave. It’s very powerful.”
Letters to the Penguins
For Tello, the most rewarding part of her work is interacting with the children she visits.
“This work has given me the happiest days of my life. Seeing the faces of surprise, admiration, fear and happiness that the story awakens in them is fascinating,” she said. “No age, gender or nationality can resist the Antarctica story.”
Tello described their words as “powerful, touching and funny.”
She shared the words a 9-year-old girl wrote after discussing plastic pollution: “Dear penguin, I did not realize I was hurting you.”
Other memorable messages included, “Paola, today I felt like a scientist. I felt I went to Antarctica,” and “Dear penguin, I promise you I will turn off the lights and unplug my family’s devices every night.”
Tello’s team is conducting research to evaluate the content of the penguin letters.
“We want to know what impact the letters have on the children, how they communicate, how the children’s cultural backgrounds impact how much they learn. All of this will allow us to develop better tools to communicate the message,” she said.
Spreading the Initiative
Tello also uses social media to report her experiences to a broader audience. Every Monday, she posts photos from rocks she saw on the expedition and uses the hashtag #geolunesantartido (Antarctic Geo Monday). On Wednesdays and Fridays, Tello shares a diary of her adventures using Instagram and her Facebook account, @pateguerrero.
She is planning a three-week trip to Colombia later this month, and she plans to visit schools in five cities.
She continues to seek companies and organizations interested in supporting her initiative and leaving an example for girls who might want to follow in her footsteps.
Tello hopes to return to Antarctica one day and spend some time working there.
“Antarctica has all the possible landscapes. Silence has a new meaning for me. The lack of human presence makes it unique and perfect. The animals are a gift to see. The total experience is just impossible to describe,” she said. “Antarctica is a crucial component of the global climate system. This is one of the reasons 30 countries operate with scientific stations to study climate change effects, the ozone depletion and the global sustainability of the marine life.”
Until her return, Tello said she remains committed to the foundation she calls “a dream come true.”
“We want to get people from all social and cultural backgrounds and engage them with this magic territory to empower them to have a society more respectful of the environment and of women,” she said.
Inspiring Other Young Women
Tello noted that, after delivering more than 30 presentations to girls in Colombia, she noticed some interesting trends.
“In general, girls participated less than boys, and they are more likely to be embarrassed or concerned about how others judge them,” she said. “Additionally, the figure of a role model is powerful, and the way the girls look at you as a reflection of their dreams is absolutely moving. I am really grateful for this.”
Though she realizes that her experience may not reflect attitudes of all girls in Colombia, she is determined to use what she has learned to be a positive influence.
“At the end of my presentations, girls are more likely than boys to get close to me, to mention their favorite subjects or to tell me about their latest science homework assignment,” she said. “One day one girl told me, ‘I thought that studying rocks was boring; now I know it is not.’ You can imagine my happiness.”
When asked what advice she would give to girls interested in pursuing a career in science, Tello has one word: Read.
“Books are a big trigger of imagination and curiosity, and that is key in science,” she said.