Although I’m trained as a medical doctor, I’m working as a researcher at the moment. I am one of 13 scientists and technical teams to overwinter at the Concordia station, where we live in isolation for nine months, experience temperatures lower than –80°C ambient and at an altitude of 3,233m on the Antarctic plateau. My main job is to help the ESA collect data for the human spaceflight programme. The Concordia station is a spaceflight analogue – ‘White Mars’ – in which the ESA have been involved for seven years.
‘Spaceflight analogue’ means that the environment at Concordia is very similar to one you might expect to find on a long duration spaceflight. As in space, we have a small international crew, isolated for a long period of time and, like space, we have lower light and oxygen levels.
I haven’t seen the sun for 63 days – not that I’m counting! There’s another 47 left to go out of a total 100 days without sun. We’re in total darkness for three weeks during the winter, but for the rest of the time there is a dim light on the horizon to look forward to.
The altitude here simulates the low air pressure that may be used for long duration space missions. Air pressure on spacecraft is configured depending on operational and engineering limitations.
I am conducting a good mix of physiology and psychology experiments. Every few months, I ask team members to wear 24-hour blood pressure cuffs and every day I ask two of the team to undergo tests for cognition and intelligence. Because we’re in a confined space, some of the psychology experiments touch on being Big Brother-like. Right now on the base, we’re all wearing watches which not only record sleep patterns, but also our interaction with other crew members. For example, mine calculates if I am spending more time in the gym or being sociable. The idea is to monitor how behaviour in these kinds of conditions changes over time.
I’m the only ESA researcher on the base. Most of the team are Antarctic scientists – glaciologists, atmospheric physicists or technicians, etc. Because the whole group is the subject of my experiments, it helps that I’m a subject too, otherwise the rest would get sick of it, I think.
We have a ‘grey water’ recycling system, which is a prototype for one we could use on a space station. It recycles all the water we use except for drinking. Once every two weeks, I analyse the quality of the water to make sure it’s okay to use.
I’m hooked on the expedition world and am an avid skier, which leant itself to working in colder places. Before coming to Concordia, I’d travelled to Greenland for three seasons of expeditions as well as the North Pole and Siberia for cold marathons, where I helped competitors with frostbite, dehydration and musculoskeletal injuries. However, those were more logistical and medical support jobs. Prior to this current experience, I had never been to Antarctica before.
While working towards my degree, my elective period was spent working Scoresbysund, a remote Inuit village in north-east Greenland. I helped to implement a government initiative called the Lifestyle Café, which educated locals about healthy lifestyle choices and good exercise routines.
This year is the first that a woman has overwintered for the research MD role. Just under a quarter of the team currently here are women.
Sometimes people can be a bit shocked when a girl rocks up to do this kind of job. There was even some comments in the summer about whether or not girls should overwinter at all. Everyone seems to have an opinion about it. It strikes me as odd that women are underrepresented in the polar world.
My goal is to promote more involvement for girls in science, especially in the space and expedition fields. For the rest of my winter here, I’m hoping to work with UK Space to run conference calls in schools. When my overwinter ends, I would like to continue working with the ESA with some educational outreach. What with British astronaut Tim Peake scheduled to go to the International Space Station on 15 December this year, it’s a very exciting time to be involved with space research here in the UK.
I don’t have any plans to go to space myself. The International Space Station would be fascinating but that’s far enough! I’m much more interested in the polar regions of this planet.
1987 Born in Herefordshire
2010 Assistant Leader BSES Expedition, Svalbard
2012 Earns medicine degree and physiology degree at the University of Bristol
2012 Medical student volunteer, Scoresbysund, north-east Greenland and assistant doctor, North Pole Marathon
2012 Works with the Large Animals Working Group at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
2013 Becomes Expeditions Medical Support, north-east Greenland
2014 Works as a hospital doctor at Chelsea and Westminster
2014 Moves to Concordia station, Antarctica
This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine