Captain Sophie Hollingsworth in the Outback

How our millennial Indiana Jones became a global health warrior

16 August 2018
Captain Sophie Hollingsworth has accomplished more in her quarter-of-a-century than most people do in a lifetime. With every door open to her, why did she decide to study a Master of Health Security at the University of Sydney?
Captain Sophie Hollingsworth

Captain Sophie Hollingsworth

At 24, Captain Sophie Hollingsworth has sailed across the Pacific Ocean, danced with the Moscow Ballet and her work has been featured at the United Nations and National Geographic. She was the youngest woman to obtain a 200-ton MCA Yachtmaster Captains License and was named New Explorer of the Year in 2017.

But it was an illness deep in a remote part of Central American jungle that set her on the path towards a Master of Health Security at the University of Sydney.

After two weeks in the Nicaraguan jungle, Sophie returned to her home in the United States violently ill with a Tropical Neglected Disease and found staff at her local hospital ill equipped to handle her case.

“From that day forward, I knew a new generation of health professionals was required to meet the challenges of a more globalised world,” she says.

“I chose the University of Sydney because it is the only university in the world to offer a Master of Health Security program. In today’s hyper-connected world, an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere.”

Sophie shares her story.

Sophie shares her story.

Being awarded the Fulbright Anne Wexler Scholarship in Public Policy in 2016 was the impetus for Sophie to begin her Master of Health Security, and is allowing her to explore a passion for sustainability and public health that she has had since childhood. 

“As a young girl, I devoured articles in National Geographic about deforestation and tribes disappearing at alarming rates, and I remember feeling this immense sense of urgency along with the realisation that I could be a part of the last generation to live in a world where such places exist,” she says.

“I knew that if I was going to see the world’s remote places before they disappeared, I was going to have to act fast. So, at an unreasonably young age I set out on my own to work in places others had written off, as too remote, too wet or too dangerous.”

AquaAid delivers safe, fresh water to schools

At 16, Sophie secured work as a deckhand on a private superyacht off the coast of Panama, where she dreamed of becoming the boat’s captain.

During this time, she met a single father in a dugout canoe with two little girls who were looking to trade coconuts for fishing hooks. She talked to the girls who mentioned they were really excited to be starting school.

Sophie chats with the local community

Sophie chats with the local community.

“I was curious why they were only just starting primary school - they looked too old. The girls told me there was a new underwater pipeline supplying their home island with clean water, so they no longer had to spend all day paddling to the mainland to collect water. I was shocked because access to water was something I had never really thought about.”

Inspired by this meeting, Sophie started researching the water crisis. She found that one in nine people don’t have access to clean water. There were few water charities that worked with the world’s most remote communities – often those the most in need of help.

“I was determined to help bring access to clean water to communities that other companies had written off as ‘too remote’ – and by ‘too remote’, I mean those that take at least three days of hiking, horseback riding, and paddling in dugout canoes to get to. Quintessential pith helmeted adventure coupled with attempts to build a more sustainable and just world.”

Captain Sophie Hollingsworth teaches the local community about safe water as part of AquaAid International.

Captain Sophie Hollingsworth teaches the local community about safe water as part of AquaAid International.

She says those around her doubted that she could do it: “Almost everyone around me said my idea was impossible - I was too young, female, and I didn’t have the necessary experience.”

To date, Sophie’s company AquaAid International has provided more than 800 people with access to water, installed water art installations in schools, and taught thousands of kids about the importance of water in the environment across Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sophie’s next move

Sophie is currently launching an immersive adventure-style cooking guide on her website The Sofia Log.

Kitchen(less) Cooking is Indiana Jones-meets-Martha Stewart, inspired by the remote communities I work with,” she says.

She came up with the idea on a solo four-wheel drive expedition across Australia.

“I was determined to nourish myself outside, with meals cooked on a fire without the convenience of a kitchen or the ability to Google recipes. What initially felt like restraints, provided an opportunity for creativity to flourish and inspired me to come up with unconventional cooking methods.”

Her ever-increasing library of recipes include fire-smoked bacon, winter cocktails, kangaroo balls and swagman’s shoelaces - her bush version of spaghetti and meatballs.

“It’s an unconventional way to connect people to the outdoors and cultural diversity through food,” she says.

In the future, Sophie hopes to use her Health Security qualifications to combat infectious disease outbreaks and biodefense and take on her next big challenge, “to get a desk job.”

Captain Sophie Hollingsworth will speak at the American Chamber of Commerce of Australia’s NEXT: Network for Future Leaders breakfast on Friday 17 August.

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