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Dr. Kristina Burrack completes year-long STEMM leadership program, Homeward Bound

Dr. Kristina Burrack looking through a microscope while working in a lab.

Rewinding to May 2023, malaria and immunologist researcher, Kristina Burrack, PhD, embarked on a journey of self-discovery, leadership, and growth when she joined the Australian-based leadership program for women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine), Homeward Bound (HB). Dr. Burrack was part of the HB8 cohort, a year-long virtual leadership program for women at any career stage, featuring 100+ STEMM women from 25 different nationalities spanning 18 countries.

These talented, smart, and courageous women banded together to grow as leaders, working to address some of the world’s greatest challenges such as It’s no small feat to tackle such large-scale issues, but HB teaches them the confidence, strategies, and leadership skills to thrive. Flash forward to one year later and we sat down with Dr. Burrack to see what she’s learned.

When we spoke last year, your goals were to build your confidence, grow your leadership abilities, and learn how to better navigate conflict and tough conversations in high-stakes relationships. How do you think this program has helped you with these goals?

A big takeaway from the program for me has been building my confidence. I’ve learned that being true to myself is an asset as a leader. That’s something that I didn’t fully appreciate due to imposter syndrome.

I was concerned about showing my true self or acting like myself, and there’s a lot of data to show that authenticity, being genuine, and being vulnerable, are all considered assets of a good leader. This program has helped me grow in those ways and just appreciate those capabilities more.

How has this program impacted the way you view the term imposter syndrome?

I think going in, I thought imposter syndrome was this really bad thing, and that it mostly affected women. And I’ve now come to appreciate that most people feel some level of imposter syndrome, although it’s more common in women. I’ve come to appreciate that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can, if it inhibits your ability to give a presentation or complete a project or that sort of thing. But it can also, assuming it’s dialed in correctly, motivate you to learn something new or try something new and be willing to have this open mind that it’s okay to fail.

And that doesn’t reflect on me as a person. Maybe I just need to learn something new or do something differently next time. And so, I’ve come to appreciate that, recognizing when I feel the imposter syndrome, why I’m feeling those feelings, and then how can I flip it and say, you know, I want to try something new. I want to give myself the confidence to do what I know I have the skills to do. So that’s been a neat development.

 How does what you learned benefit you and the work that you do?

Going into the program, I already felt like I was pretty good at strategic thinking in terms of my career or my research program. My dad, growing up, was a big fan of five-year goals— where do you see yourself in five years? At the time, I was like, Dad, I don’t know, I’m going to college or I’m going to graduate school.

In retrospect, I’m very thankful because it helped me just think about where I want to be and how I get there. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t fully appreciate how much of a potentially good leader I already was or how a lot of the characteristics of what I would consider a good leader I already employ or do, said Dr. Burrack.

What kinds of traits are you already employing as a good leader?

Something that I find important for me in a leader is someone willing to say, “I don’t know.” And I think that’s been shown in many studies over the years, as well as just personal anecdotes, that a good leader isn’t someone who has all the answers.

It’s someone who asks the right questions and knows how to find the right answers or knows how to find the people who know the answers. That’s something that I kind of naturally do. I’m willing to say I don’t know the answer to that question. Let me look it up or let me find someone who does.

I’m also empathetic. I really like connecting with people, hearing about their stories, their lives, what brought them to science or whatever it is. And along those lines, maybe hearkening back to your other question, how is this going to benefit the work that I do at HHRI? I’m really committed to training the next generation of scientists. Besides my malaria research, those are the two things that get me excited every day to go to work and do what I do.

With HB’s strong focus on sustainability, the program culminates in a voyage to Antarctica to see the devasting effects of climate change firsthand. Since women in STEMM often rely on grants and to bolster their leadership abilities, the HB8 cohort is individually tasked with raising $20,000 for the program’s tuition and the Antarctica expedition. Dr. Burrack still needs to raise an additional $8,000 towards her Antarctica voyage, which will be in early 2025. If you would like to donate to her cause, you can do so here.

Two explorers walking through Antarctica in cold weather attire.

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