Adventurer, passionate conservationist, leader.
Marissa Parrott is a passionate storyteller. When I call her to get initial notes for my pitch about her recent month-long voyage to Antarctica, we fill 40 minutes of tape talking about everything from polar swims, to being on the bushfire frontline, to her ground-breaking research in endangered species reproductive biology. All without more than one or two questions asked. This is because Marissa is also a passionate environmentalist and conservationist, dedicating her life’s work to finding solutions for some of the most pressing climate and environmental issues, and to fighting for what’s right, even when the odds are exponentially stacked against her.
Marissa is a former colleague of mine from Zoos Victoria, and from the moment I met her, I was instantly in awe of her energy – the joy she finds in her research ripples out of her every cell, and you cant help but be transfixed as she tells you about her latest findings about the little-known native rodent, Antechinus, her work with conservation teams studying gorillas in the deep jungles of Rwanda, or her contraction and survival of Malaria in 2017, after a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
From a young age, Marissa knew she wanted to not only work with animals, but ensure their survival. According to her parents, when she was 3 she said she wanted to work at a zoo ‘making baby animals’. A dream she has not only followed through with as a Doctor of Reproductive Biology and Zoology, but as one of the team at Zoos Victoria working tirelessly on their threatened species program.
Marissa is also a champion of women. Reminiscing about her once-in-a-lifetime journey to the southern-most tip of the world, you’d expect her favourite moments to revolve around the pods of orcas tailing the ship, or the magnificent humpback whales breaching nearby. Or the midnight sunsets, only to see it rise again two hours later. But it was the fellow women in science, her 112 new sisters aboard the Hebridean Sky who have left her most energised to continue her quest.
It’s this very passion for furthering the place of women in science that landed Marissa in the Homeward Bound STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) class of 2019. A highly sought, much-contested international program, Homeward Bound aims to bridge the gender gap and empower these women, who are leaders in their field, to step out of the shadows. Each year, the course culminates in a trip to Antarctica, which is more a university on steroids that a luxurious vacation, to network, brainstorm ideas, and see first-hand the effects of climate change in one of the wildest, most remote places on the planet.
Please finish this sentence for me, Marissa Parrott is…
A passionate conservationist, whose main focus in life is making a difference and saving animals across the world, particularly Australia’s local species, marsupials and our native rodents.
Why do you do what you do and how did you get to this point where you decided – I need this to be my life, this is what I want to give back?
I’ve always absolutely loved animals, of all shapes and sizes, from fish and frogs and snakes, up to the mammals and the birds and everything in between. I’ve always focused on working in conservation of endangered species, and my dream job was always working in a zoo that’s doing amazing conservation work where I can be involved in breeding programs and reintroduction programs. I love actually seeing a difference and getting animals back out in the wild where they belong.
Tell me about Homeward Bound, why did you want to be involved?
I’ve always been really passionate about science and I feel like I’m one of the lucky people who had really supportive parents. But a lot of women and girls don’t get as much support or they don’t see as many opportunities as I was lucky to see about what’s available.
There was a study that came out years ago that I always find fascinating called ‘The Scully Effect. And it said that girls who grew up watching the X-Files were significantly more likely to go into a career in science. They attributed it to the only female scientist on TV at the time was Dana Scully in the X-Files, and it actually influenced women and girls watching it to say ‘hey that’s a really cool job, maybe I could do something like that too’.
Isn’t it funny how popular culture can have that sort of an impact?
It did, it did! And while the X-Files had that impact, I also thought how sad that at the time there weren’t more female scientists on TV. Obviously we have some amazing women to look up to like Jane Goodall, but often they don’t get a lot of the attention that the male scientists get.
So one thing that I was really passionate about growing up was trying to be a mentor, to show women and girls the cool things you could do with science and how it’s a job for everyone and I think that’s a big part of what Homeward Bound is about.
A few years ago I went to a conference and there was a plenary talk by an amazing female scientist from the Arthur Rylah Institute here in Melbourne named Fern Hames, and she had been on the very first cohort of Homeward Bound. And I thought, I want to do this, I desperately want to apply.
And so I applied – it’s a very competitive process – and I was absolutely thrilled when I was accepted. It was the largest ever group to go, which made it the largest ever all female expedition to Antarctica. There were 100 participants and 12 faculty members, 112 of us from 33 nationalities, and 25 different backgrounds or disciplines in STEMM.
Besides the trip to Antarctica, what is the workload like throughout the year?
The first 11 months are remote learning around resilience, leadership, science, and strategy. It’s also for those big issues we’re seeing around the world – climate change, and plastics and more recently tackling things like world health.
The course culminates in a one-month trip down to Antarctica, which is really intense learning. It’s away from all social media, phones, Internet, there’s no other form of contact down there! We all fly into Ushuaia, Argentina.
Is that Patagonia?
It is Patagonia. Then we lived on a beautiful ship called the Hebridean Sky for three weeks, travelling down in Antarctica to see the issues around climate change and around the warming of this really sensitive area – the Antarctic peninsula is the fastest warming area on the planet.
Each day was really intensive and could include wildlife surveys, some kind of Antarctic landing or zodiac trip, meetings with scientists stationed down there, plus classes.
So it definitely wasn’t a relaxing cruise round Antarctica?
It really wasn’t! We didn’t have to work after dinner but often we did. All of the women wanted to share their science and their ideas for everything from plastics to climate change, so we were often working until ten o’clock at night or later.
I understand that – when would you ever otherwise get the chance for these women all be together, for that amount of time, with all these different skill sets?
Exactly, and just having those opportunities to speak with women from all around the world, who have had all these different experiences, to support each other and to come up with new ideas for how to tackle those global issues.
And I think one of the interesting things about the journey is before I went, when I was speaking with other women from previous homeward bound cohorts, I asked what the most amazing thing from their trip was. And they said, it was the people. And I thought, that’s not right, what about penguins and orcas coming up under the ship and albatrosses going overhead. All of which is amazing. But it’s the same when people ask me now what the most amazing bit about the trip was – it was the people. It was one of the most supportive, amazing environments I’ve ever been in.
Which leads me into the next question I was going to ask, going in to the trip, what were you hoping to gain from the experience? And what did you come out with?
Going in, I was excited about meeting so many different people and having that global networking opportunity. And coming out, we all feel like we’ve come out with over a hundred new sisters that are there to be hugely supportive.
The other bit I was really excited about was seeing Antarctica. I’ve always wanted to go but I didn’t want to go without having a really important reason to do so that might help the area.
Coming back from Antarctica, it was gaining that understanding of this remote, very wild, very fragile and very beautiful location. The wildlife isn’t hunted on land, and so you can stand there and penguins will walk past you and not feel threatened by you, and continue their natural behaviours.
It’s just an amazing feeling to have that experience with these beautiful creatures, which are very tough, but very fragile; many of them have decreasing numbers. When you’ve got that connection with these animals, you can start to share the stories and images with others and try to get people passionate enough about them to help make that difference too.
It’s getting people to care about something to motivate them to act, isn’t it?
Going into the voyage, there were a couple of things I was also nervous about – one of them was crossing the Drake Passage, one of the most dangerous ocean crossings in the world. I was actually hoping for some really decent waves, because I thought that would have been a really fascinating experience. We had about five metres high waves but the Homeward Bound cohort the year before us had 12 metres!
The other thing I was worried about, which is a silly one, but one thing I hate is cold water. It can be 40 degrees and I do not want to get in that swimming pool if it’s a bit chilly! I’ve hiked in the Congo, had a wild lion jump into the shower while I cleaned my teeth, rescued endangered animals from poachers with armed rangers, and I’ve done all this seemingly more scary stuff, but cold water, not my thing.
When we were in Antarctica, we had the opportunity to do the polar plunge, which is walking in off the beach, pretty much off a glacier, and swimming in the below freezing water.
Yes! And one of the sayings on Homeward Bound is that you should always choose courage over comfort. So that was my moment, I was going to choose courage over comfort by doing the polar plunge. And so we were standing on the beach, and there were two of the crew were in a zodiac just off the beach in dry suits with a defibrillator, because the water is so cold that once you go your heart could just stop – it’s pure glacial.
So I did it! I ran in and dived in, had photos taken! And then there was a group of women standing there thinking do we don’t we go in, so we all joined hands and I went in a second time! And the second time hurt a lot more! So I’m proud of my polar plunge and while I still hate cold water, it’s never going to be as cold as Antarctica.
You can tick that off your list now
Yes, I can tick it off my list!
Also, the experience of being somewhere so remote was incredible. We got to see all those different aspects of Mother Nature, from sunny skies to freezing blizzards. And we had orcas coming up under the ship, albatross overhead, five species of penguins, five species of seals, we saw so many humpback whales and even a blue whale.
That would have been incredible!
It was. Just to have that experience and to stand there and to be surrounded by something so wild. And I think that just gave all of us a really strong sense of what we need to protect and how important it is.
This area is a world national park, but it is very fragile. It is prone to warming and there are a number of issues that are hitting it around warming and around plastics that migratory whales are getting from elsewhere that is making them sick. And issues with overfishing of the Patagonian tooth fish, krill and other species.
So I think that really drove home from us, that although it is very remote and protected, it’s not protected from what’s happening in the rest of the world.
It’s all linked
Yes it’s all linked to us, and it’s all linked to Antarctica too. I think that’s a really strong message for us.
Another amazing thing is that we went from November to December so it’s almost 24 hours of sunlight where we were.
Oh wow, I hope you had some good block out blinds in your room!
We did, luckily we did. It was amazing too – in lectures you’d be thinking why am I so tired, we’re talking and having this really robust discussion about equality in academia and you’d look and realise it’s 11.30 at night but it’s still bright sunshine outside. So we had some beautiful sunsets about midnight, and sunrises at about two in the morning, it was just spectacular.