To the Arctic and Beyond


Seize every opportunity and make the most of life’s amazing adventures.

That is the advice of Professor Dame Jane Francis, who gave an extraordinary talk about her experiences as a polar scientist.

In a talk titled ‘Going to the Ends of the Earth as a Woman in Science’, The University of Leeds Chancellor recalled the challenges she faced when starting her career as a geology student in the 1970s .

She said: “I remember a job ad which said ‘women need not apply’, as women weren’t able to work on oil rigs or in the Middle East at that time. I remember being really depressed that day.”

Travelling the world

But she carved out a name for herself in fossil plants, saying: “My experience in rock units and other types of rocks, and using them to understand past climate change - that expertise in fossil forests from a geological point of view is what’s taken me to the ends of the earth.”

She added: “When people ask me, ‘What should I do in my career?’ I always say, going abroad for me was the best thing I ever did. Just reinventing myself, meeting a whole new scientific culture and having the most amazing adventures when you’re young and carefree.”

Professor Dame Jane Francis’ fascinating work has seen her travel across the globe, from studying rocks in the Australian outback to the brutal Arctic and Antarctic landscapes.

“I don’t recommend landing in a helicopter on an iceberg in the Arctic – they tend to crack in two,” she recalled.

Polar bear invasion

Referring to one of her most challenging work environments, she talked about the time a polar bear invaded her camp while working in Svalbard, in the Arctic Ocean.

“We were a group of six women and two huskies (who were supposed to chase the bears away). It was the most scary thing I’ve ever done in my life, when a polar bear invades your camp, and I’m never going to get myself in that position ever again. But it was a great trip.”

She worked in temperatures of -50 degrees Celsius with 50 Knot winds and a windchill temperature of about -70 degrees Celsius. This was on a coastguard ship in Canada which was frozen into the ocean to study how the water functioned at that point.

“This is the coldest I’ve ever been,” she said. “The captain allowed us off the ship for about five minutes because it really is almost unbearable at that temperature. And I had to rush back because my contact lenses were beginning to freeze and I couldn’t see where I was going.”

Leading global teams

Now, as the first female Director of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Dame Jane Francis coordinates a group across the world with an objective of working together for peace and science.

In her roles at the University of Leeds, Professor Dame Jane Francis was Executive Dean of the Faculty of Environment between 2008 and 2013. 

She was appointed Dame Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (DCMG) in 2017 and Chancellor of the University of Leeds in 2018.

In 2002 Professor Dame Jane Francis became the fourth woman in history to receive the Polar Medal for her outstanding contribution to British Polar research.

Further information 

For more information please contact Corporate Communications Officer Becky Pascoe 

Image credit: Professor Dame Jane Francis