For Marion Dierickx, living in a socially distanced world is nothing new.
In fact, she does it for two to three months every year in one of the most extreme conditions on Earth: the South Pole. Dierickx ’12, A.M. ’14, Ph.D. ’17, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Cosmic Microwave Background Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Every year she and some colleagues take the 9,000-mile journey from Cambridge to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to build and maintain the BICEP/Keck microwave telescopes there. Life on the ice feels a lot like life in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.
“In some sense, they are complete opposites but, in general, there’s also very clear parallels,” Dierickx said. “Here, you have to shelter in place because the outside is a dangerous place … venturing outside carries risk. You can’t forget your mask, your gloves. You steer clear of other people and heading into a store is like a whole expedition. Living in Antarctica is also like that, where the outside world is actively trying to kill you.” Temperatures never rise above freezing and can plummet to more than 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. “You have to be prepared [with the proper equipment each time], and it takes a mental toll every time you step outside.”
Another defining parallel: The internet and phone are necessary to keep up with friends and family. In Antarctica, it’s a little tougher because connection is limited, but she’s discovered that civilization comes with its own discontents.
Dierickx, who returned to Boston in January, now finds herself isolated in a different way. At the station she was surrounded by colleagues but cut off from the outside world. Here, she is “in the middle of a dense urban environment, the world’s knowledge at my fingertips thanks to a high-speed internet connection, but no ability to [meaningfully] connect in person with another human being.”
This is where lessons from the past come in handy. During her last trip to the pole, from October to late December, she made a big effort to connect with people outside her immediate team over the internet, and it paid off. “For the first time ever, I did not want to leave.”
She figured out that one way to avoid loneliness while distanced, socially or geographically, is “to diversify our social exposure through the phone, through different media, different social networks,” she said. “I think that’s a very healthy thing to do right now. Use that time to connect with people we don’t normally connect with. To reach out.”