Hollings researcher returns from Antarctica ready to lead change

December 19, 2023
Hollings researcher Judit Jimenez Sainz kneels in Antarctica snow holding a paper with the Hollings logo
Judit Jimenez Sainz, Ph.D., shows her Hollings pride at the bottom of the world. Photos courtesy of Judit Jimenez Sainz

A 21-day trip to Antarctica has been life-changing for one MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researcher.

Judit Jimenez Sainz, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, studies how mutations in DNA repair proteins can lead to cancer. But the journey to Antarctica – part of a program to empower more women leaders in science, engineering and medical fields – left her energized and enthusiastic about collaborating on projects at MUSC and around the world to increase female leadership and address the challenges caused by climate change and health crises.

“This experience is going to have an impact on many of the decisions I make on a personal and professional level,” she said. “Much of the work carried out has focused on emerging leadership and the design of a personal and professional strategy, in addition to how to collaborate with the women's group in STEMM and what we want to achieve to increase the number of women in leadership positions and increase diversity in our society.

“This magnificent group of women with experience in a multitude of fields is a ‘precious stone’ for collaborations, search for solutions and personal and professional support. We are all stronger together,” she added.

a boat in the sea alongside Antarctica 
Jimenez Sainz and 67 other women in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine lived aboard the Ushuaia during their trip to Antarctica.

The Antarctica trip was the culmination of a yearlong online leadership program created by Homeward Bound, whose mission is to, by 2036, help 10,000 women with STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine) backgrounds to develop their leadership skills.

Women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions across disciplines. According to the Pew Research Center, only 11% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 30% of Fortune 500 board members, 33% of university presidents and about a third of state legislators are women.

Jimenez Sainz was accepted to the Homeward Bound cohort for 2020. COVID, of course, interfered with the program’s plans for an in-person trip, so members of her cohort, along with the groups from 2021 and 2022, had to wait until this year to make the voyage.

Altogether, 188 women from 25 countries boarded two ships for three-week voyages. They slept, ate, studied and collaborated on the ships and made regular landings on Antarctica via small inflatable boats – thrilled to set foot on Antarctica itself. They learned from biologists who lectured on the animal species around them, participated in science policy and planetary crisis panel discussions, connected with the International Space Station to learn about leading in remote places, collaborated with the NASA Global Observer Project by recording weather conditions to help to improve forecasting and worked together to develop their plans for their post-voyage goals.

a woman grins at the camera as behind her penguins go about their day 
Stepping onto Antarctica truly emphasized for Jimenez Sainz that she was entering a hostile environment for humans - even if the inhabitants were adorable.

But Antarctica itself was more than she expected.

“Antarctica is a frozen paradise where it seems like nothing moves, but everything is constantly changing,” she said.

Before the trip, she had imagined the landscape as purely white.

“But it's not only white. It has a whole tonality of whites, blues and grays,” she said.

And although she was amazed and delighted to see penguins, seals and other animals at close range, she kept in mind that she was in their space.

“I felt like an intruder because we were walking into their habitat. And you feel it. That’s not your habitat. You’re not prepared for that. We were covered with five layers – they recommended three, and that was not enough, so five layers on the bottom and five layers on the top,” she said. “It required a little mental preparation because it’s a daunting experience.”

a pair of penguins appear to be holding flippers as one penguin looks down bashfully 
Judit Jimenez Sainz was enchanted by the landscape of whites, blues and grays and the animals of Antarctica.

Jimenez Sainz said that the experience of Antarctica emphasized the importance of flexibility and dealing with emergent circumstances – their trips were dependent on the weather and could be canceled at a moment’s notice. She also learned to appreciate the amenities of daily life here, noting with a laugh that the transition to living without internet service was a bit of a shock.

Now that she is back, Jimenez Sainz intends to continue collaborating with other women from the program and colleagues here at MUSC on three goals. She’d like to work to increase the number of women in leadership positions at MUSC and Hollings and to increase the number of “green” research labs. Along with fellow Homeward Bound graduates, she also wants to work toward diversifying the Homeward Bound program itself; most of the program participants, she said, were from developed countries.

She is also continuing her cancer research, trying to understand the underlying molecular mechanisms of point mutations in the BRCA gene that can lead to cancer. Mutations in the BRCA gene are well-known for causing breast or ovarian cancer, and that is where Jimenez Sainz started her research.

“Little by little, we are starting to see more of those mutations in other cancer types," she explained.

wide view of people lining up to get onto small boats surrounded by the vast ice and sky of Antarctica 
Program participants boarded small boats to travel from the ship to the shore and back.

She recently received a grant from the National Cancer Institute intended to help early-career investigators from diverse backgrounds to transition into faculty positions. She’ll use this grant to study BRCA2, and a pilot grant from Hollings will enable her to study BRCA2 in gastric cancer.

Sainz said she's grateful for those who have invested in her research, as well as the sponsors who enabled her Antarctica trip. 

And as she incorporates all she’s learned in the Homeward Bound program, she also wants to look at whether increasing temperatures could affect DNA repair proteins and therefore increase cancer risk. In Antarctica, she could see how everything on this planet is connected and affected by climate change.

“Antarctica really teaches you how vulnerable and fragile our ecosystem is,” she said.