An Interview with Purvi Gupta: On an Antarctic Expedition

By Shweta Venkatesh

“It almost feels like going back to living in Sharav for three weeks, except this time it will be a floating hostel in the Southern Ocean!” says Purvi excitedly, referring to her forthcoming trip to Antarctica. An alumna of IIT-madras, Purvi Gupta is the only Indian woman to be a part of an all-female expedition to Antarctica. The expedition led by Fabian Dattner consists of eighty women from around the world, all committed to Homeward Bound’s aim to increase awareness of the low number of women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine).

Homeward Bound educates participants on climate change and the detrimental effects of human activity on the environment—the conservation of which is our prime concern today. “The effects of climate change are becoming more obvious—with extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods,” says Purvi, growing serious. The conversation with Purvi dealt with serious issues regarding the expedition to Antarctica—climate change, human thoughtlessness, and gender inequality. The abysmal lack of women in strong leadership roles globally is highlighted by Homeward Bound. Purvi is enthusiastic about the programme’s vision to create a network of one thousand women with backgrounds in science. She is confident that the programme will support and encourage women in leadership roles “each in their own way, fighting for change”.

Credit: Jess Melbourne-Thomas
Credit: Jess Melbourne-Thomas

Purvi attributes her participation in Homeward Bound’s programme to her own interest in gender diversity in leadership. A talk by Deborah Pardo in Cambridge in 2016 inspired her to apply for Homeward Bound. Purvi says that her time in insti made her very aware that only a paltry ten percent of her class was female. She remembers her time as Gen Sec of Sharavati Hostel and smiles as she recounts having to fight with the then Cul Sec to allow girls to participate in events like Junkyard Wars, and being told that a girl could never be a Branch Councillor. “That experience made me a strong believer of the role of women in society.”

Purvi lauds the year-long enterprise that culminates in an expedition to Antarctica. The education programme, comprising five elements, focuses on developing leadership and strategic capabilities, personal visibility, science collaboration, and reflective journaling, explicated by means of lectures, exercises, personal coaching and extensive open discussion. “It’s an exploration and critical analyses and explanation of events, arrived at through ‘reflecting forward’ and ‘reflecting back’,” says Purvi, when asked what reflective journaling was. A different topic is picked each month, abstract topics that allow for reflection, deep conversations and engagement with other people to build awareness.

“I’d be happy to share the Dos and Don’ts of fundraising in a year’s time—wish me luck!” laughs Purvi. Homeward Bound funds a large portion of the costs, nearly 60%, including faculty time, leadership training and diagnosis, coaching support, support staff and so on. The balance which is largely the cost of the Antarctica expedition is to be fundraised by each participant. Instead of being worn down, Purvi is energised by the process. “I might talk to about twenty people, and if five of them say that they’re interested, I think “Great!”.” She agrees that she loves meeting new people, talking to them, and looking for creative ideas. Having grown up ‘in various schools across India’ due to her father working for the Indian Railways, it’s no wonder that Purvi is comfortable with new people and change.

The eighty women strong programme has one drawback. As a result of all the classes having been virtual, almost all the women have not met one another. Purvi is trying to remedy that by attempting to meet some of the women in the programme. Although the women set sail only in eight months time, Purvi feels like the preparations have already begun. What with trying to meet her companions, preparing herself for the bitter cold and abrupt changes in weather, and ensuring that she’s vaccinated against possible diseases, Purvi appears to be quite caught up in work. The team sets sail from Argentina, on a direct course for Antarctica and the three weeks of living on the water requires strength of mind to overcome seasickness, homesickness and the possibly monotonous ocean.

“The expedition to Antarctica is a dream come true,” says Purvi. “Antarctica is the ultimate symbol of global collaboration—the place which requires no visa and has been established as a zone of peace and science. My participation in Homeward Bound is primarily about gender parity and climate change in the backdrop of Antarctica”. Purvi laughs when asked why Antarctica was the chosen destination. “Well why not?” she says. If eighty women making a trip to Antarctica will get the world to sit up and take notice, then that’s what they’re going to do, she says. Antarctica is the most susceptible to climate change and sections of the continent have been showing the swiftest responses to climate change on the planet. “If you want the plumbing in your house fixed, then someone has to go over there and see how bad the problem is before you can fix it. That’s exactly what we’re doing here.”

While this is not the conventional career path of a B.Tech student from IIT Madras, it is certainly Purvi’s chosen one. Being fully aware of this, Purvi sounds excited as she describes the programme thus far. The best part of it, she says, is coming up with new ideas and getting out of her comfort zone to implement them. The whole project— fundraising, meeting new people, doing something different and for a cause she believes in— has given her a purpose, one that will exceed the twelve-month programme.

“It’s what I’m going do. I’m learning a lot from it, and having fun. What helps is if you believe in it.”

The team sets sail in February 2018. Follow Purvi’s blog here for updates on her journey. Yourstory and The Better India also spoke to Purvi about her upcoming expedition. More about Homeward Bound here, and here.

Disclaimer: The views are not to be construed in any manner as the official views of IIT Madras.
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