Antarctic Adventure

Sisters’ Brave Choices Open Path of Possibilities

The Ushuaia in Antarctica. Photo: Christina Devorshak ’91

By Emily Freehling

The view from the captain’s bridge of the Ushuaia wasn’t encouraging.

The ship swayed in a sea of building-sized waves capped with angry froth. After every three or four swells, a three-story tower of water crashed over the bridge of the ship, a decommissioned government vessel. At that moment in January 2019, it was carrying 80 women through the Drake Passage, a 500-mile stretch of some of the roughest seas on the planet.

The international delegation had to cross the tumultuous waters to make their way from the tip of South America to their destination – the Antarctic Peninsula.

Showing video she had shot during the turbulent two-day stretch of her time aboard the Ushuaia, Christina Devorshak ’91 told a group of University of Mary Washington students that traversing the “Drake Shake,” as the passage is sometimes known, was a harrowing but necessary part of her experience in Antarctica.

“You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable to get to a really good place,” Devorshak said.

(Story continues below photos.)

Scientists, Mary Washington alumnae, and sisters Christina Devorshak and Elisa Devorshak Harvey ’81 visited campus for two days in September to share stories of voyages to Antarctica as participants in a program called Homeward Bound.

Founded in 2015 by female Australian leadership expert Fabian Dattner, Homeward Bound helps prepare women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) careers for leadership roles. The yearlong program includes extensive leadership training among annual classes of about 80 women from around the world. After a year of working remotely and connecting through video chats, the women complete the program with a 22-day sea voyage to Antarctica.

Homeward Bound’s first trip to Antarctica in 2016 was the largest-ever female expedition to the continent, and the delegations have gotten progressively larger since then. The program’s fourth of 10 planned trips was scheduled to launch this month with 95 women aboard.

“Antarctica isn’t really like anywhere else,” said Harvey, who was part of the second Homeward Bound class and visited Antarctica in February and March of 2018. “It is a place that just takes you away from everything you’ve ever known before.”

“It is the most spectacular scenery you could ever imagine,” said Devorshak, who was part of the third Homeward Bound class.

Antarctica is often referred to as ground zero for climate change.

Data from the Palmer Station, an American research outpost, show that the annual ice season on the Antarctic Peninsula has shrunk by three months over the past 30 years.

“It’s a critical barometer for what’s happening around the world,” Harvey said. “You can see it happening right in front of you.”

That makes it an apt place to gather scientists to think about solving global problems.

“It’s an entire continent devoted to peaceful purposes and scientific pursuits,” Devorshak said.

Each day during their trips, the women boarded heavy-duty inflatable rafts to venture from their ship to a research station, or to see wildlife, icebergs, and other sights.

Because conditions change so rapidly there, drivers always packed enough supplies to sustain the group for 24 hours in the event they couldn’t get back to the ship.

But the risk was worth it, and both women marveled at seeing icebergs more than a mile long, with a luminescent blue glow that looked too beautiful to be real.

“It reminds you that climate change is happening,” Harvey said. “These are icebergs that are millions of years old that are disappearing.”

They watched as colonies of penguins –  Adelie, chinstrap, and gentoo –  built highways through the rugged landscape and pieced their nests together pebble by pebble.

“Everybody falls in love with the penguins because they are just so adorable,” Harvey said. “You are supposed to stay 15 meters away, but that’s impossible because they come right up to you. They poke at your shoelaces and pants.”

Open to the unexpected

Harvey and Devorshak exemplify the diverse paths that science careers can take.

Harvey is a biotech consultant for makers of human medical devices, but she is also a practicing veterinarian.

After majoring in biology at what was then Mary Washington College, she earned a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology followed by a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Connecticut. She completed a doctorate of veterinary medicine at Tufts University.

Harvey has worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviewing medical technologies, and she has traveled to Kenya, Honduras, and other countries with World Vets, an international animal aid program.

Also a Mary Washington College biology major, Devorshak earned a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in entomology from North Carolina State University. A job with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization took her to Rome, Italy. There, she worked on the International Plant Protection Convention, which strives to stop the spread of pests that can harm plants worldwide. Over five years in that job, she traveled to nearly 70 countries.

Today she is a critical-issues specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. She has also written a book on pest-based risks to plant life – a scientific guide so important to the field that she has been asked to complete a second volume.

Both sisters said an important aspect of finding fulfilling career paths has been their openness to unexpected opportunities.

“It’s something I could never have planned to do,” Devorshak said of taking her first job in Italy. “Had I been completely focused on just doing one thing, I never would have looked at this as an opportunity, but it completely changed the course of my professional career.”

Harvey said a similar thought process made her open to the idea of the Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica when it first popped up in her Facebook feed a week before the application deadline.

“I thought that everything I’d done up to this point had led me here without even realizing it,” she said.

Preparing for a diverse career

Harvey first visited Mary Washington during her senior year in high school. The family was living in Hampton during her father’s service at Langley Air Force Base, and she and a few friends took a tour on a hot summer day.

“I just connected with it,” Harvey said. “I ended up applying to Mary Washington and the University of Virginia. I got into both and chose Mary Washington.”

She enjoyed the mentorship of Professor Michael Bass, an architect of the university’s environmental science program.

A decade later, Devorshak sat down in her first biology class at Mary Washington. When the professor came to her name on the roll, he paused and asked, “Do you have a sister named Elisa?”

The professor was Bass – who taught at Mary Washington from 1968 until 2018 and is now a professor emeritus of biology and environmental science.

“Elisa had been in his class 10 years before, and he actually remembered who we were,” Devorshak said. “It surprised me. Something like that would never happen at a huge university where the bio classes have 300 or 400 people in them.”

Bass attended Harvey and Devorshak’s presentation on campus in September, and he even brought a well-worn, typed paper – Harvey’s final report from her 1980 internship for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

“They were hard-working, dependable, focused young women,” Bass said. He remembers Devorshak’s work as the main lab aide for general biology during her time at Mary Washington, and Harvey’s requests for recommendations as she added to her growing list of academic degrees.

Both sisters credit the university’s focus on liberal arts – and the writing and critical-thinking skills UMW emphasizes – with giving them the tools to communicate their work to a wider world.

UMW Department of Biology Chair Lynn Lewis was among the faculty who hosted the scientists for their September visit. Lewis knew Devorshak during her time on campus, and she agreed.

“Students don’t know it while they are here,” she said, “but when you get out in the real world and you have to talk to people, you have to talk to folks who are not scientists, because you have to convince them why you are doing the research you are doing.”

“No bit of science stands on its own,” Devorshak said. “Science is all about a network.”

Building global connections

A major goal of the Homeward Bound program is to build a global network of 1,000 women working in STEMM who can influence decisions to help the planet and its environment. Women are significantly underrepresented in these leadership positions, according to the Homeward Bound website.

“Although women comprise 60 percent of university graduates, only 10 to 20 percent of them make it to senior decision-making roles or professional-level academia,” the program literature states.

In their UMW presentation, Devorshak and Harvey urged students to seek experiences that take them out of their comfort zones – and not to fear failure. They also assured students that it is normal, but not necessary, to feel like an impostor as they grow in stature and responsibility. The sisters reported that even some international award-winning scientists feel this way, but it is important to overcome self-doubt.

Their visit inspired Marianne Beaulieu ’23, a first-year student from southern Maryland who had heard about the event in her honors biology class.

“I like the whole female empowerment theme,” she said, adding that she chose Mary Washington because it’s one of the few institutions in the country where she could get a degree in science – an area in which she hopes to earn a doctorate one day – while minoring in musical theater.

With those varied interests, she could well be on a path that will lead her on an adventure like Homeward Bound.

“Be open at all times in all phases of your career to all possibilities,” Harvey told the UMW audience. “I’ve followed a winding path, but it’s given me opportunities to do a lot of amazing things.”

And those amazing things are worthwhile, even if they mean getting uncomfortable and spending two days tossing and turning in the middle of the world’s most dangerous ocean.

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