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.
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 brave -20℃ to drill down into ice, riding out a storm while stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean for weeks, or snorkelling for new species in 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 kms from the nearest town.
As much as you might love the chance to spend your summers on the icy continent of Antarctica, it can be hard to leave your family behind, miss out on Christmas, and be separated from your community for long periods of time—especially if it’s something you do every year for weeks or months at a time.
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 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. Working remotely 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 focuses 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 time into understanding the effects of social isolation on its researchers: space travel. NASA has done a lot of research on combating loneliness during space travel, as, after all, it asks its employees to literally leave the Earth, and all the festivities, food and gravity that goes with this departure.
NASA’s Human Research Program initially focused 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, and 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, they 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, 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.