Lucie Ráčková: Studying isolation and stress in Antarctica. Next stop, space?

Ph.D. student Lucie Ráčková, working at the Environmental Physiology research group, RECETOX, studies the relationship between isolation and acute and chronic stress. As a polar expedition member to the J.G. Mendel Station on James Ross Island, Antarctica, she investigated how polar explorers perceive separation from their daily lives and whether they feel stressed. Read more to find out why stress in Antarctica matters, what life is like on a polar station, and what is ahead of Lucie.

3 Apr 2022 Marie Hošťálková

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If we start our interview with your studies, why did you choose the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University?

I was studying at an arts high school, and I thought I would have become a professional musician. But when I was choosing where to go after high school, I thought it would be nice to try something else. So, I submitted my application for the Faculty of Science and started studying two undergraduate studies - Anthropology and Experimental Biology. I liked studying anthropology, which explores humans' biological and socio-cultural views, and in experimental biology, more specifically anthropogenetics, I learned laboratory work and genetics. Later on, I continued my master's studies only in Anthropology, and I am glad that I made this hard decision.

You are currently studying the Ph.D. program in Environmental Physiology - Environmental Health at RECETOX. Why RECETOX for doctoral studies?

During my studies in Anthropology, I was interested in the topic of stress, especially prenatal stress. It intrigued me so much that I wanted to continue exploring it further. I sought exciting opportunities to become actively involved in research during my undergraduate and graduate studies. Once, I attended a lecture by Professor Julia Dobrovolná on stress measurement using the new ENTRANT technology that she and her team had developed. I was intrigued by their approach involving direct stress measurement using mathematical equations. I offered my helping hand to the professor because I wanted to learn more about the topic, and today I am a Ph.D. student and a member of her research team.

And how did the polar expedition in Antarctica come your way during your studies?

The topic of my Ph.D. is isolation experiments. Specifically, my topic is called Trajectories of Acute and Chronic Stress in Isolation Experiments, focusing on isolated geographical areas and space research. In Antarctica, members of a polar expedition are isolated from the outside world, and therefore research in the southern hemisphere is a perfect fit. I became involved in isolation experiments in the days before the covid pandemic when we all found ourselves in isolation out of the blue. Everyone experienced such an isolation experiment first-hand.

Archive of Lucie Ráčková

Has the pandemic affected your research?

Yes! The rapid onset of the pandemic forced everyone into isolation to prevent disease transmission; this provided a new, unexplored situation. While there are similar features to isolation during the pandemic and isolation of polar explorers in Antarctica, the context and inner experience are vastly different. While expedition members went to Antarctica voluntarily, the isolation during the coronavirus was mandated. Thus, in the first year of my Ph.D. studies, I began exploring the stress associated with isolation brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The results of the RESTRESS study dealing with this topic are currently being evaluated, and a paper is in preparation.

How did you prepare for your trip to Antarctica?

In March 2021, we submitted a proposal for a study examining isolation stress in geographically isolated areas. In September, we received the fantastic news that I would be joining the expedition. We had been discussing the possibility of going to Antarctica since the beginning of my Ph.D. Still, the actual preparation began once the proposal was approved. Now, we had only a few months to prepare everything for collecting data in Antarctica. In addition, I attended several information meetings with the expedition leaders as well as underwent a mandatory medical examination to ensure that I was physically capable of handling the rigors of the expedition.

Before leaving for Antarctica, we also underwent a thorough medical examination by Dr. Filip Haiduk from the University of Ostrava, who worked as the expedition doctor at the polar station. Then, as part of his research, he analyzed explorers’ physical fitness and ability to adapt to the conditions during the expedition.

And what about the journey itself? After all, at that time, the coronavirus pandemic was at its peak in our country, and traveling was difficult.

Before the departure, some expedition members voluntarily isolated themselves, although this was not a requirement. However, it was mandated that all expedition members are vaccinated against COVID-19. We flew from Vienna to Madrid, Spain, and then to Santiago de Chile, where we all underwent PCR testing and stayed in a hotel for a mandatory 10-day quarantine. After the quarantine, we flew to the Mendel polar station on James Ross Island. We were fortunate that our travel was uneventful despite all the coronavirus measures.

Archive of Lucie Ráčková

Did you experience stress after arriving in Antarctica?

I can't speak for everyone, but I did not find it difficult, of course, not counting the seasickness, which most of us had suffered. We had to de-winterize the polar station and prepare everything for the two-month stay. Each had a task to do, and the work went smoothly.

The question is, what do you mean when you say stress. Stress is a state that an organism experiences when encountering an environmental factor requiring adaptation. From my point of view, we adapted well.

And during your stay?

In Antarctica, the environment is entirely different, free from the stresses of civilization. There is no traffic, visual smog, or the hustle and bustle of everyday life - it can bring relief. On the other hand, situations not encountered in normal civilization come up. It always depends on the individual adaptation mechanisms. Each expedition member is dependent on himself and the rest of the team. If a technical fault occurs, it can only be repaired to a certain extent.

My computer broke down. At home, I would try to find a solution on YouTube or take it for repair; neither is available in Antarctica, so you must be creative and find answers. Fortunately, I had a spare computer, so it wasn't that much of a problem, but fixing technical issues can be challenging.

A typical week in Antarctica doesn't consist of a five-day workweek and a two-day weekend. The life of polar explorers is weather-driven. It is necessary to collect samples if the weather permits, regardless of the day of the week. So, we often worked several days in a row without a weekend or a day off because when the weather is good in Antarctica, you must make the most of it.

Another thing that comes to mind, which can be stressful, is the need to cooperate within the team. I can't praise our team enough; we were a great bunch and helped each other out. But having to manage your daily activities around the needs of others, including trips away from the polar station to collect data, can also be stressful.

And the separation from family and loved ones, with whom communication was only possible via email, must also be mentioned. Sending photos is not recommended as they are slow to download and upload – text is best.

How did you collect data in Antarctica?

Data were collected through questionnaires, cognitive tests (reaction speed, decision-making ability), and the ENTRANT device worn by researchers during cognitive tests, measuring the intensity of stress responses. All explorers also wore smartwatches that measured their heart rates every minute. During the night, heart rates were measured more frequently. I also conducted regular interviews with individual participants.

How often were the measurements taken?

Each explorer completed a weekly questionnaire and underwent bi-weekly ENTRANT and cognitive testing. I interviewed the explorers before departure, during quarantine in Chile, the first week at the station, and during the second half of the stay. Interviews upon return will follow. The evaluation will take several months. My experienced colleagues, Dr. Veronika Eclerová and Daniela Kuruczová, are helping me with the data analysis. Professor Julie Dobrovolná supervises the whole project.

What are the steps after analyzing the data?

First, we will answer the research questions, followed by the publication of scientific articles. We observed several things that work in a polar expedition that would be useful to implement in future expeditions. But we will know more once we have the results.

Lucie Ráčková with ENTRANT, the photo by Filip Haiduk

During the Antarctic expedition, the war in Ukraine broke out. Where and how did you find out about world events?

I was in touch with family members and friends, from whom I also learned about the war in Ukraine. It definitely affected, directly or indirectly, all of us. It certainly created room for some stress. After all, Europe is interconnected, and some polar explorers have friends in Ukraine. None of us expected such information.

Could this news have affected the stress measurement?

The research aimed to find out what kind of stress polar explorers experience. The study did not intend to observe polar explorers in total isolation; it attempted to capture how polar explorers physiologically experience anxiety and access to information. We measured the body's response. Just before the end of the expedition, I did the sixth round of measurements determining the physiological state of the explorers; that was already after the war had started.

And what about everyday life at the polar station?

There were 16 of us at the station. Every day, a different couple was on duty and cooked for the rest of the crew, did laundry, etc. The people who weren't working on their research helped with the maintenance of the polar station; for example, we painted the station.

As for food, we had a perfect time. We baked bread, and there were even croissants on Sundays. We had a generous supply of fresh and frozen vegetables and fruit from Chile, and when these ran out, canned food was the order of the day. But we weren't hungry at all. Laugh.

Archive of Lucie Ráčková

Is it enough to spend only two months in Antarctica for research?

It is certainly enough to answer the research questions formulated so that the polar explorers are only in Antarctica for that length of time.

And personally? Were the two months enough?

I would stay longer and would love to go back. The scenery was beautiful.

Looking back on your stay, how great an experience was it?

It was a great experience, and I'm thrilled that I got this unique opportunity. Plus, it was my first experience with field research. Before Antarctica, as a researcher, I had collected data several times. Still, it was either in a laboratory or from respondents who volunteered to participate in the research and came directly to fill out the necessary questionnaires or complete interviews. Antarctica was very different in this respect.

This was your first isolation experiment – are there other ways for conducting such a study?

Studying isolation at the International Space Station would be great, but getting there and back is a bit of a challenge. Laugh. But my motto is that nothing is impossible, so maybe one day.

So, what's next for you?

I'm about to start an internship with colleagues at Universidad de Cadiz. They are working with NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) on behavioral psychology as part of an isolation experiment. They also cooperate with the Astroland Interplanetary Agency, simulating the Martian environment in a cave in Spain. It is another isolation experiment. If I get this opportunity, I would definitely take it.

Lucie, thank you for such an inspiring interview. Fingers crossed that everything works out as planned.

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