Work in Isolation: What We Can Learn From an Antarctic Research Scientist

NYU Abu Dhabi research scientist Xianwei Wang in the Antarctic.

With harsh weather and absolute wilderness for miles, NYUAD research scientist shares tips on coping with isolation from the outside world during his field trips

Xianwei Wang is a research scientist at NYU Abu Dhabi for the Center for Global Sea Level Change. Collecting data on how warm ocean water is impacting glaciers has taken Wang to Antarctica and Greenland on multiple occasions. Isolated for weeks on end in the icebreaker ship and on the ice sheet, Wang shares how he stayed productive and sane despite being separated from the outside world.

1. Find your routine and work in short bursts.

Life in confinement on the icebreaker ship does not mean researchers are working round the clock. Instead, Wang sets a routine and works in short blocks of time, and takes breaks. Those breaks help keep the work in a steady pace and reduce the sense of overwhelmingness.

2. There will be good days and bad days, and that’s okay.

Icebreaker ship Araon.

Motion sickness onboard the icebreaker can happen during rough sea conditions. The researchers and crew would hunker down and focus on their physical and mental wellbeing first before attempting further work. 

3. Exercise.

There’s a dedicated gym room onboard the icebreaker to keep everyone active. Wang says breaking out in a sweat helps him cope better with stress and tension.

Read: NYU Abu Dhabi Athletics Launches Public Virtual Weekly Workout Sessions

4. Come nightfall, get together and watch a movie (virtually).

The crew often get together in the evenings to socialize and unwind from a day of fieldwork. While social distancing is an important way to reduce the spread of Covid-19, there are ways to watch a movie virtually with friends such as through Netflix parties and Zoom meetings.

5. Whenever possible, stay in touch.

Without internet access for the duration of the field trip, the research team brought along a satellite phone to stay in touch with their loved ones. With no civilization for miles and sometimes only penguins for company, the satellite phone keeps Wang abreast with news and emotionally connected.

Penguins in the Antarctic.

6. Create an event to look forward to each week.

Once a week, the research team prepares a big dinner cookout. It is an event everyone looks forward to after a long day. Wang suggests planning some favorite activities as a reward for making it through the week. Always thinking about making that special dessert? This might be a good time for it. 

7. Find beauty in nature and everyday life.

Icebergs in the Antarctic.

While the icebreaker ship passes through the vast ocean among spectacular icebergs, it does get old especially when that’s the only view you see everyday for five straight weeks. Wang is mindful to appreciate the nature that surrounds him and find little things to be thankful for each day.

8. Get resourceful.

Researchers camp on the ice sheet in the Antarctic.

Living on the ice sheet is harsh. Tents get blown down by strong winds and issues arise constantly. With only a ten-man crew on the ice sheet, Wang needs to think on his feet and resolve roadblocks creatively with whatever limited resources he has around him.