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Here’s why she’ll gladly plunge into the coldest waters on Earth

Emma Towlson, an associate research scientist at Northeastern, is among 100 women scientists and researchers who will travel to Antarctica to learn valuable skills that will help them to become leaders in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. iStock photo.

They say everyone has a price. Emma Towlson’s is $500. That’s what it would take to get her to plunge into the coldest waters on Earth. And it’s a good bet she’ll do it more than once in December.

Towlson is no thrillseeker, and this is no dare, at least not in the conventional sense. An associate research scientist in the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern, Towlson is looking to pull off this stunt to raise money for an expedition to Antarctica later this year.

Emma Towlson’s work centers on network neuroscience, an emerging field that takes a new approach to mapping, recording, analyzing, and modeling neurobiological systems. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“I will absolutely jump into the freezing cold—and hopefully not disappear under the ice,” she says, laughing, in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she was attending a science conference in late June. “It just means that much to me.”

Towlson has been selected to participate in an upcoming program led by Homeward Bound, a company that sends women scientists to Antarctica to learn valuable skills that will help them to become leaders in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

“A motivation for my taking part in this program is to change things for women,” says Towlson, who points out that women have had a hard time joining expeditions to Antarctica.

Towlson’s work centers on network neuroscience, an emerging field that takes a new approach to mapping, recording, analyzing, and modeling neurobiological systems. Her latest project focuses on analyzing the neural circuits and behavior of a worm called Caenorhabditis elegans and determining its applicability to the human brain, which could have treatment implications for Parkinson’s disease.

Towlson, who comes from an economically disadvantaged background, says she has had to contend with obstacles that have hindered her pursuit of her career goals, such as not being able to afford a laptop and having to take on side jobs to support her studies.

“I had a really funny path to end up here,” she says. “I had to spend two years in a boys school to be able to get the qualifications I needed. As I go through life, I feel more and more aware of the barriers and insidious difficulties that we face, and I’d like to change some of those, not just for women, but for all underrepresented groups and people with these silent barriers that don’t get spoken about a lot.”

Towlson is among 100 women scientists and researchers who will sail from Argentina to Antarctica in November for a three-week-long expedition that will involve leadership training, developing ideas for collaborative science projects, and visiting a number of research stations in between hiking excursions and seeing penguins, glaciers, and whales.

Towlson says this voyage will mark the largest women-only expedition to Antarctica to date. She anticipates that it will open doors for women to take advantage of numerous opportunities, including applying for more grants and organizing conferences.

“It feels like the beginning of something far bigger,” she says. “And I think the biggest opportunities will come from what we create ourselves.”

Towlson has spent all year preparing for the trip by evaluating her leadership abilities, assessing her presentation skills, and forging connections with fellow participants from all walks of life. On the expedition, she’ll be working with graduate students, retirees who have already built successful careers, scientists who work for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and others.

As she looks forward to the trip, Towlson says she’s “excited and scared” to be diving into the unknown. For example, she says that “it’s going to be a bit crazy” to live in Antarctica when the sun will be out 24 hours a day. But she says that she signed up for the program because she could no longer live with the “existential unease” of watching from the sidelines as climate change affects the planet. She wanted to do more.

“When I signed up for this, it was kind of a response to a feeling of you’re just going about your life, maybe you’re in the gym on the treadmill and you look up and the TV it’s telling you that California is on fire, then you get in an Uber and the radio is telling you that India is under water,” she says. “And it forms this constant backdrop to everything that I just can’t ignore anymore.”

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