Tips from remote field researchers on life in isolation, tough environments

Carolina faculty members Emily Eidam, Chris Martens and Hans Paerl share the lessons they learned working in remote parts of the world and advice that may help people adjust to life in COVID-19 quarantine.

A man looks out of a window of a submarine.
Chris Martens looks out of the viewport on Aquarius Reef Base. (Courtesy Christoph Gerigk)

Marine science researchers in Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences have worked in many of the world’s most remote spaces: Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, Alaskan glaciers and Arctic icebreaker research vessels.

The lessons researchers learned while working in cramped quarters and without the comforts of home may be helpful to people adjusting to life in COVID-19 quarantine.

Remember empathy and celebrate your small accomplishments  

Associate Professor Emily Eidam has done a variety of fieldwork as a seagoing oceanographer in remote parts of Vietnam, Alaska and the Arctic, and shared tips on empathy and celebrating victories.

Eidam says: “Usually on these trips I’m working with a small group of people that I haven’t met before, and it’s important to set aside your differences and focus on being supportive and gracious. The experience is what you make of it, and it will only go well if you are willing to be a good citizen in this new environment and new community.

“As a society, we’re doing this with each other on a huge scale. We should be understanding of the fact that everyone is in a tough situation, we all are facing extra adversity, and it’s a chance to set aside hang-ups and be kind to each other.

“Give yourself a break, and make sure you’re getting a few things done every day. Call that your victory. In the field, some days are productive and you get a lot of data. Other days the ship engine might fail or storms keep you at anchor and you don’t get much done. It might not feel like progress at the time, but looking back when you add up every little thing you did each day, you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come, and those are your victories.”

Go outside, set a schedule and have something to look forward to

Chris Martens is the William B. Aycock Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences at Carolina. He is one of a few researchers who have spent time living and working at the Aquarius Reef Base,the world’s only underwater research station. The Aquarius underwater habitat is about the size of a school bus, has laboratory space, a kitchen and a tiny bunkroom. It serves as the temporary home for researchers conducting experiments on the surrounding coral reef ecosystem. The habitat is located at 62-feet deep on Conch Reef about five miles out to sea from Key Largo along the Florida Keys outer reef tract.

Martens says:“Getting yourself set on a regular schedule is key. On Aquarius, natural lighting came in through large viewports — at night it was like being the occupants of a fishbowl where the fish outside became the viewers of a well-lit tank. By day the surrounding waters were clear enough that we could easily see the reef and sand patches surrounding the habitat. However, it was important to see the sunlight filtering down from above during day dives. That helped to regulate my daily schedule and to keep my biological clock in tune.

“I would wake up at 6 a.m. for breakfast, suit up for a six-hour dive at 7 a.m., come back for lunch at 1 p.m. and around 4 p.m. head back out for a few more hours before coming in for dinner and to sleep. No problem with dropping off after nine hours of diving. The next day, I’d do it all over again, always knowing that there’d be new surprises waiting out on the reef.

“Getting outside the lab to work on experiments and go exploring was important. You can feel constrained when you’re in small spaces for too long. I looked forward to my dives; having something ahead of me to look forward to was helpful. I once had an encounter with a manta ray that swam around and was curious about me. And, I would see the familiar 400-pound goliath groupers that regard the Aquarius habitats as their home. I got to observe the lifestyles of reef inhabitants for days and nights rather than just 30 minutes or so, and those experiences made the time go fast.”

Find ways to have fun, stay active and explore safely  

Distinguished Professor Hans Paerl got involved in a National Science Foundation project in the 1990s that led him to Antarctica with a small research team. He spent months studying microbes in ice, and living in a single-person tent in temperatures as cold as -35 degrees Fahrenheit.

Paerl says:“Find something to entertain yourself. If you’re at all musically inclined, find an instrument. If you’re into art, photography, work on that – look for scenery and other subjects. Learn to focus on basic skills like writing or composing music if you’re interested in those.

“I brought my harmonica to Antarctica, and my colleague John brought his guitar. There isn’t much sound in Antarctica other than wind, so we would play blues music and we could hear the echoes going across the lake and bouncing back to us from the far away mountains. It was one of the most incredible things I experienced.

“Explore places near you safely. I would go for short hikes and look for stuff growing under rocks. I would take pictures in interesting places. In circumstances like Antarctica, or like what we’re living with today, you learn to enjoy being yourself in the context of being in a unique, even difficult, place and time.”