Julie Sommer was shaking and screaming in her office when she got the good news.

This spring, the Omaha woman learned she was selected as one of 300 women to participate in an all-female sailing expedition around the world to study plastic pollution in the ocean.

“They picked me. I couldn’t believe that they picked me,” Sommer said.

The research mission will take two years and is made up of 30 legs. It’s organized by the nonprofit eXXpedition.

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Julie Sommer

Sommer applied for the experience last fall. She filled out her application quickly and thought she had no chance of being selected. But she advanced to other rounds, submitting a one-minute video about the skills she could bring to the boat and completing a 20-minute interview.

Organizers try to pick crews with various backgrounds. Sommer has no sailing experience but has a science background. And she stressed her ability to cook for the crew during the interview process.

“I’m still pinching myself that I got picked,” she said. “I’m a 47-year-old mom from Nebraska.”

Sommer was accepted in May. Since then, she’s been connecting with women on other legs of the excursion and brushing up on research. She attended a summit in London to kick off the first leg of the tour and to participate in workshops to prep for her leg.

Preparation also required a hefty amount of fundraising. She’s required to pay a deposit and fee to board the boat, as well as cover costs for travel, hotel stays and her equipment.

Sommer, research resources manager at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, will set sail in June 2020. She and 10 other guest crew members will spend two weeks traveling from Vanuatu to Australia.

They’ll be accompanied by four eXXpedition staff members — a mission leader, skipper, deckhand and first mate and crew leader. They’ll jump in to help with sailing, cooking and cleaning. And along the way, the women, who Sommer called “citizen scientists,” will take samples of ocean water to study the effects of plastic pollution.

“We are a floating lab,” she said.

At the beginning and end of the legs, the crew will help with a beach cleanup and will lead an education component. But their job doesn’t end there. They’ll go back home and serve as ambassadors in their communities.

Sommer wants to encourage people to rethink the use of plastic in their lives. Sometimes that means getting out of your comfort zone to try something new, she said.

“The end goal is for us women to get hands-on experience, do solutions-based thinking on the boat, and then come back to our communities. It’s for us to be role models and leaders,” Sommer said.

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