Beth Healey: The Isolation Researcher

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BETHAHEALEY
ISOLATION RESEARCHER

Emergency medicine doctor, Beth Healey, tells us about the winter she spent in Antarctica researching the effects of isolation and extreme environment on the physiology and psychology of the crew

Beth Healey isn’t a typical medical doctor. As well as working on the NHS frontline during the pandemic, Beth has worked in a number of extreme and remote environments including Svalbard, Siberia, Greenland, the North Pole, and Antarctica, where she spent a winter as research MD for the European Space Agency (ESA) exploring the effects of isolation and extreme environment on the physiology and psychology of the crew. 

Due to the low temperatures (-80C) and long polar nights (105 days without any sunlight) Beth and the crew were completely isolated, even in case of emergency. The research Beth and her team carried out is being used to help inform space agencies of the challenges future astronauts on long duration spaceflight missions may face, as well as helping to develop medical models required for such missions. 

Since returning, Beth has contributed to a Space and Global Health UN specialist interest group considering how we can use space derived technology to solve medical problems on earth, including life support systems, telemedicine and remote diagnostics.

We caught up with Beth to find out how she found herself in Antarctica and discover what she learned about isolation and its effect on humans while there.

'There are so many parallels between space and polar environments.'

How did you become a space researcher?

When I was at uni I spent a week with the ESA, which you can do as a medical student. It was an introduction to space physiology and medicine. I went because I didn’t really know much about space and I was always very interested in the extreme environment physiology. I really enjoyed it so when a vacancy came up, I applied. I had always wanted to go to Antarctica, but maybe just for the summer or something like that. 

So, initially it was more of the lure of the polar regions than space?

Initially yes, but I have to say that since that post in Antarctica I’ve become much more involved in the space industry side of things. There are so many parallels between space and polar environments. It’s all just an extension of exploration and I think that’s what really drives me. 

'Concordia is a research station that’s used to simulate space. The crew there are completely isolated for nine months of the year.'

How did you prepare to spend a whole winter in Antarctica?

As soon as I got the post it was a very quick transition to then suddenly being involved in all the different training. First, I went out to Chamonix to do mountain rescue training. Then I was at the Astronaut Centre learning about all the various protocols. I also did human behaviour performance training, which is all about how to live and work effectively together as part of any airborne crew and what astronauts do before they go into space. 

What is Concordia?

Concordia is a research station that’s used to simulate space. The crew there are completely isolated for nine months of the year. So while there are lots of different Antarctic stations, Concordia is fairly unique in that it’s one of only three of the inland stations, which makes it a lot more inaccessible than the other stations.

What was your role at Concordia?

Currently, with the International Space Station, if you have a medical condition, an astronaut can be evacuated within half a day to a day, whereas if we’re looking at going on missions further away and deeper into space, it is no longer going to be possible to have a quick evacuation possibility. As a result of that there are obviously different psychological and medical challenges. 

My work at Concordia helps prepare astronauts for those longer duration missions. We did about eight protocols and experiments in total. It’s probably about a 50/50 mix between physiological and psychological experiments. 105 days of not seeing the sun makes it a perfect environment to look at the effect artificial light has on eyesight and circadian rhythm patterns.

'I’m now part of a working group – a collaboration between the UN, ESA and WHO – looking at how we can incorporate our research into healthcare systems.'

Can you go into more detail about the experiments you performed?

We did MRI scans looking at brains, pre-mission, post-mission and six months afterwards, looking for any structural changes that might happen due to isolation and sensory deprivation. In another experiment, we wore activity trackers to monitor our circadian rhythm cycles, but because they had GPS, we also used the trackers to track social interactions, looking at how people’s behaviour and the group crew dynamics changed over time. 

Were people more or less likely to isolate themselves at different parts of the missions? Are they seeking social interaction, are they spending more time in the gym or are they sort of isolating themselves away? And also where and when were the big conflicts occurring and how were the dynamics within the group changing?

We were also doing a lot of tech development. We spoke to a video diary which tried to work out non-verbal cues about how we were feeling based on how we were speaking and what words we were using. We were also doing ‘cognition battery’ which is a programme looking for any dip in performance, which is a red flag for mission control to be wise that an astronaut is dipping.

I also did some studies looking at physical activity and wellbeing and how isolation affected that too. A lot of the stuff we worked on is transferable to other domains, such as our research on the effects of artificial light, which is relevant to people doing shift work.

I’m now part of a working group – a collaboration between the UN, ESA and WHO – looking at how we can incorporate our research into healthcare systems, which is especially relevant to the developing world where people don’t have ready access to healthcare. It's fascinating to see how the pandemic has also affected the way that we are using remote diagnostics and how amazingly that’s developed over the last few months.

'One way to counter the negative effects of isolation is to plan for the future.'

What were your key findings from the research?

One of the big things we learned, which is totally relevant to the extended lockdowns we’ve all had to deal with is what’s known as the third quarter syndrome. It’s all about how crews tend to struggle through the third quarter of a mission because in the beginning everyone is motivated for the new experience and – like the pandemic – there’s a certain amount of camaraderie. As time goes on, the novelty wears off. Everyone gets tired and grumpy as they get to the halfway point when it still feels like a very long way to the end of the mission. That’s when everyone really starts to struggle. Then, when you get close to the end everyone's moods start to pick up a bit. Understanding the stages of isolation when people are most likely to struggle helps us put countermeasures in place.

What kind of countermeasures?

One way to counter the negative effects of isolation is to plan for the future, especially for times when you know you're more likely to be feeling down. We planned a lot of things for the third-quarter period, which massively helped as it kept us busy at a time when we knew we were likely to be at our lowest.

It’s also vital to acknowledge that it’s totally normal to struggle. Knowing that helped make the crew a bit more tolerant of each other. It’s all about having an awareness about the people you’re isolating with and understanding how different situations might impact them and picking up on how they’re behaving, maybe even before they realise themselves. Like most health-related issues, prevention is key!

'Everyone has something to contribute to a team and people from less conventional backgrounds often bring the most to a team as they can offer a fresh perspective.'

Do you have any big projects in the pipeline, or has COVID-19 put everything on hold?

COVID-19 itself has been an unexpectedly huge project for me as I have been working on the front line in intensive care throughout the pandemic. I would love to be an astronaut and will certainly be applying to do that when ESA opens their next call. In the meantime, I’ve been spending time this year learning to sail and am always keen to head out on ski touring expeditions whenever possible.

Any parting advice?

I always remember that when I got my first job as a skidoo driver out in Greenland the team said their main concern was that I am 'really small'. Often, when out picking up military groups of hardened expeditioners they would be surprised when I took my helmet off! The reality is no one is designed for polar conditions and the biggest, strongest looking people could struggle just as much, maybe even more, than anyone else might.

Everyone has something to contribute to a team and people from less conventional backgrounds often bring the most to a team as they can offer a fresh perspective.

Part of the working group between the UN, WHO and global space agencies collaborating to use space technology to address the sustainable development goals (SDGs), Beth is involved in addressing SDG 3 - 'Good health and wellbeing'.

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