All by myself

Scientists have a pretty high hit rate of working in remote places, with research taking them to the ends of the Earth, and sometimes even off it.

Illustration by Kallum Best

Illustration by Kallum Best

This is an editorial for Issue 30 of Lateral by editor-in-chief Tessa Evans who hopes to have an excuse to go to Antarctica one day.

Scientists work in some of the most remote places on Earth. While this makes for an exciting life — whether it’s piling on seven layers of clothing to drill down into ice, losing your dive gear in the middle of the Indian Ocean, or snorkelling in a remote river in the Kimberley only to be bitten on the head by a crocodile — it can also be a difficult and lonely one.

It’s hard enough working remotely from home, let alone hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the nearest town.

As much as you might jump at the chance to spend your summers on the icy continent of Antarctica, or on a lengthy research trip, it can be hard to leave your family behind for long periods of time — especially if it’s something you do every year for several weeks or months every year.

Not only that, you’re stuck in these remote places with few others, and social tensions among small groups are known to be challenging — and in some cases life-threatening, as the Russian scientist in Antarctica who kept spoiling the endings of books found out to his detriment.

Given the upswell in flexible working conditions (some institutes even support remote PhD or post-doc positions) there’s been a lot of research into the social isolation effects of working remotely. It can dampen your creativity, as you miss out on those spontaneous interactions with others that help you navigate complex ideas. It can also make you feel alone and left out. But this research focusses mostly on those working from home, or at most living in a different city — it doesn’t really cover those working together in isolated areas.

There is one area of scientific exploration that’s put a lot of time into understanding the effects of working in isolated places in groups: space travel. Space agencies have done a lot of research on combating loneliness during space travel, as, after all, they ask their employees to literally leave the Earth.

At the beginning, NASA’s Human Research Program focussed on the physical effects of being in microgravity for prolonged periods of time. But they soon realised they also needed to work on protecting the psychological health of their astronauts. Since then, they’ve been examining how individual resilience and crew composition can affect missions, with land-based missions on Antarctica or in contained failities in Hawaii.

The HI-SEAS facility in Hawaii has served as a model habitat for human spaceflight to Mars for the past five years, with crews doing eight-month stints in the habitat pretending they are flying to the red planet. But this year, things didn’t go as planned, as one crew member was sent to hospital four days into the mission, and the whole program was put on hold. The injury caused tensions between the four participants over breaking the simulation or seeking medical help. Last month, the habitat was converted to a simulated moon base.

Other studies have been designing tools to help astronauts cope with the loneliness, helplessness, and anxiety that comes from being separated from their friends and families for long periods of time.

In one experiment, researchers asked twenty astronauts who lived on the International Space Station from 2003 to 2016 to keep personal journals about their experience. They’ve used these journals to identify what helped individuals adapt to the challenges of space life in the past, and are feeding these back to help support future astronauts. The researchers say their findings can be translated to a number of disciplines, including the military, and can benefit older adults who also face isolation and confinement.

Back on Earth, Australia has its fair share of remote research spots even within the country’s bounds, with archaeologists, geologists, ecologists and marine biologists all journeying to spaces far from human habitation to study a particular section of our world.

These voyages of discovery are a huge part of the appeal of science. Inspired by famous naturalists travelling to unknown lands, it is in the fringes of what we know that discovery lies. Studying the unseen and the unknown is exciting, and it’s how we continue to push the frontier of knowledge further.

Much as it was for those explorers during the age of discovery, it’s hard work. So we need to make sure that those sent to the edges of the Earth have the emotional skills to deal with it.

 

 

Some of the most interesting discoveries have come from exploring remote sea vents and pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the world we live in. Occasionally these adventures drum up tales of mythical beasts or bring back unintended guests. Explore the effects of isolation on ecosystems, and on ourselves, in Issue 30.

The time has come (my feathered friends) for me to step down as editor-in-chief at Lateral. I’ve loved being a part of the Lateral family for the past four years, but it’s time for someone new to take on the challenge.

If you want to take a stab at the helm and run the business side of Lateral, contact me on editor@lateralmag.com. Arohanui.