A view of the Concordia research centre at night with the Milky Way seen overhead

Concordia research station is a French–Italian outpost on the Antarctic Plateau.Credit: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

Modern science can’t be done in seclusion. Researchers everywhere have to stay connected to academia globally, but some are sidelined by geography and, as a consequence, by economics or politics. Some live and work thousands of kilometres from major research centres, some must base themselves in the back of beyond for fieldwork, and some have to overcome a systemic lack of resources or support as a result. Technology has removed many barriers, but isolation still has consequences. Scientists in remote locations have to be especially resilient, resourceful and willing to go the extra mile to stay in touch.

Nature spoke to four scientists in different parts of the world who cope with various forms of isolation. They discuss their approach to their work and the challenges of living at outposts of science.

FLAVIA MORELLO: Paying a price for being far away

Archaeologist at the University of Magallanes, Punta Arenas, Chile.

Close up of Flavia Morello on a boat

Flavia Morello works in Wulaia Bay near Chile’s Navarino Island.Credit: Flavia Morello

I’m an archaeologist in the Tierra del Fuego region of Chile. At a latitude of 53° S, I’m based about 2,000 kilometres south of Santiago, the city where I was born and raised. My institution, the University of Magallanes, is in Punta Arenas, which has a population of about 130,000 people. It’s the only city of any size in the area. There’s a lot of empty land around us, which adds to the feeling of isolation.

It’s a 4-hour drive — including border stops and ID inspections — from our main campus to the closest university, the National University of South Patagonia in Rio Gallegos, Argentina. Every couple of years, either I’ll go over there or researchers from there might come here. But we’re more likely to see each other at conferences in other countries.

I did my PhD at Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris, but I always planned to come back to Chile. I was especially drawn to this remote area, for personal and professional reasons. As a researcher, I’m amazed and captivated by egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies. Tierra del Fuego was a land of hunter-gatherers, going back thousands of years. I’m passionate about uncovering their way of life.

In 2023, I travelled to Rome to present my findings on tools and artefacts that reflect the industry and ingenuity of Tierra del Fuego residents going back up to 13,000 years ago. The various groups faced significant geographical barriers, including ice sheets and the Straits of Magellan that separated island communities from the mainland and from each other, but we found strong evidence of intermingling and cooperation, including similarities in tool-making techniques.

It’s important to stay connected despite my location. I try to go to one international conference a year. The one in Rome attracted thousands of people. In April, I attended the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in New Orleans, Louisiana, a gathering for archaeologists who work anywhere in the Americas.

I collaborate with other researchers through the Cape Horn International Center, comprising a consortium of eight Patagonian universities as well as an international network coordinated by the University of North Texas in Denton. We take biological, archaeological, anthropological and other approaches to biodiversity and conservation. I contribute the long-term perspective on humans in the environment. It’s one thing to do DNA analysis on a human bone from 10,000 years ago, but that DNA doesn’t show whether that person was a hunter or a mariner, or what tools they used. I help to provide the context.

Still, I pay a price for being far from the capital. Chile is highly centralized around Santiago and the government doesn’t have the vision to support distant places such as Tierra del Fuego. Inequality increases with latitude. Transport is expensive, but I have to travel great distances for conferences and other necessities. I try to find multiple purposes for every trip. If I have to go somewhere for a conference, I’ll try to study artefacts at a nearby museum or perhaps conduct fieldwork.

Because there’s a very limited pool of potential graduate students in the area, I struggle to attract and sustain a team for laboratory research and fieldwork. It’s very expensive for people to travel and live here. I try to build working relationships that encourage researchers to come here and stay, but it’s a challenge.

GÉRARD ROCAMORA: A lot of people wouldn’t last a day out here

Science director and chair of the Island Biodiversity and Conservation Centre, University of Seychelles.

Close-up of Gerard Rocamora holding a rare Indian Pond Heron

Gérard Rocamora with an Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) on Grande Soeur Island in the Seychelles.Credit: Gerard Rocamora

Researchers from other parts of the world are often envious when they find out I live and work in the Seychelles, an island country in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s beautiful, but I’m not on a holiday. I can hear the ocean from my bed at night, but I haven’t been to the beach for fun in months.

I’m trained as a scientist, but I see myself first and foremost as a conservationist. My main mission is to protect and restore biodiversity on the islands of Seychelles and beyond.

A lot of people wouldn’t last a day out here. We’re at the forefront of climate change. The sea is rising, torrential rains wash away the soil and it’s hot all the time. It’s not uncommon to have days hitting 33 °C with 85% humidity. My laptops often have to be replaced after one year because of the humidity. I sleep with mosquito nets but I’ve still had two bouts of dengue fever. I’m not sure I could survive a third.

From here, it’s about 2,100 kilometres to the Kenyan coast and the University of Nairobi, the nearest major university. The University of Seychelles has few students and limited resources.

To overcome this isolation and lack of local support, I co-founded the Island Conservation Society in 2001. And in 2014, I founded the Island Biodiversity and Conservation Centre at the University of Seychelles. Both have been instrumental for building international collaborations and receiving funding from international agencies and private donors.

I also co-wrote a book, Invasive Alien Species in Seychelles, to bring attention to my work in this part of the world. My efforts with the ICS and the IBC have made a real difference.

To protect native species, I have led successful efforts to eradicate alien vertebrates — including cats, rats, barn owls and lizards — from 14 islands in the Seychelles. The results have been incredibly gratifying. For example, we removed rats and cats from two islands in the Cosmoledo Atoll in 2007. Since then, the numbers of red-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon rubricauda) have increased dramatically, and masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) and brown boobies (Sula leucogaster) have recolonized the largest island. Walking on to a restored island and seeing all of the birds and crabs everywhere — it’s intense. It feels like being a young person in love.

Since 2019, I’ve been collaborating with researchers in France, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom to study the foraging range and movements of white-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus), which are poorly understood in this part of the world. We found that they are roaming far beyond protected waters, a sign that current protections are insufficient.

It’s important to have scientists stationed in remote places. If researchers want to come here to study some aspect of the Seychelles — even topics beyond my area of expertise — I can serve as a point of contact. The simple fact that we are here opens the door to others.

GABRIELE CARUGATI: Like living on another planet

Glaciologist and atmospheric chemist at Concordia Station, Antarctica.

Portrait of Gabriele Carugati

Gabriele Carugati works in sub-zero climates.Credit: Marco Buttu, PNRA

My colleagues and I have been at the Concordia Station — a French–Italian research outpost on the Antarctic Plateau — since early November 2023, and we’ll stay until late November 2024. We’re about 950 kilometres inland and about 560 kilometres from the nearest other human beings, who work at Russia’s Vostok Station. For 9 of those months, the 13 of us at Concordia will be completely on our own. Nobody will be visiting and nobody will be leaving.

I work in this environment so that I can take snow samples and ice cores to study climate change, both in modern times and the distant past. Carbon dioxide levels in deep ice cores can tell us about the atmosphere one million years ago. I also study particulate matter in the air — it’s like a blank slate here because there’s no human activity, and this helps us to better understand the natural atmosphere. Temperatures in winter can get to −80 °C, or even −100 °C with the wind chill. It’s really dangerous, but we take a lot of precautions.

The closest comparison is to living on another planet. The astronauts in the International Space Station — who orbit at an altitude of about 400 kilometres — are closer to other people than we are, any time they fly over a city. The European Space Agency uses us as a case study to better understand the psychological isolation that astronauts might endure on a Martian research base. We underwent thorough psychological testing before the mission, and we regularly fill in questionnaires and take tests to see whether isolation has affected our cognitive abilities and our concept of time.

We have treadmills here, and everyone exercises. We also have a greenhouse where we grow fresh vegetables, and the dedicated chef here is amazing. We eat about twice the normal amount of calories every day to meet the physical demands, but we’re still losing muscle mass. The oxygen at this altitude is about 30% below what it is at sea level, and that takes a toll.

Mental and physical health are big challenges, but we’re doing well so far, and staying focused on our work helps. We miss some things from normal life, such as friends and family, but it’s not a problem yet. The isolation is even relaxing sometimes. You can focus on your work and yourself, free from all the other obligations and problems of daily life.

I’ve dreamt of coming to Antarctica since I was 11. It’s a great accomplishment for me to be here, and to be the station leader. I’m excited for the rest of the mission.

LAMECH MWAPAGHA: Making inroads, but feeling left behind

Genomics researcher at the Namibia University of Science and Technology in Windhoek.

Portrait of Lamech Mwapagha in the lab

Lamech Mwapagha is a geneticist in Namibia.Credit: Festus S. Shafodino

When I present posters at international conferences, I have a lot of lively interactions with other scientists. People assume there’s not much research happening in southern Africa, especially in Namibia. They are often surprised when they see the work that we do in genomics.

I’ve made inroads in my field, but I do feel isolated and left behind. Genomics requires an extensive amount of infrastructure and funding, and we just don’t have the equipment. For example, I’m currently looking at antimicrobial resistance in waste water. It’s crucial to understand the diversity of bacteria in waste water, and I had to send samples to facilities in Ghana that have more-advanced sequencing capabilities than I do.

I’m also collaborating with researchers at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in Trieste, Italy, for a project on the role of human papillomavirus in head and neck cancers. One of my students won a fellowship to spend three months there, so she was able to do proteomics work that she couldn’t do at our institution.

I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of international meetings, including ICGEB conferences in Trieste and Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology in Keystone, Colorado, and Hanover, Germany. My university doesn’t have the funds to cover travel, so I have to look for conferences that can offer funding or else find my own grants. Even if you don’t meet the age criterion or other specific requirements of a travel grant, you can write to the conference organizers to explain your financial situation and why you need to attend — sometimes, it works. I also recommend joining a research society in your field. It might offer travel grants as a benefit, although these tend to be competitive.

I don’t feel too isolated geographically. It’s about a 2-hour plane ride from here to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where I earned my PhD. I still have colleagues and collaborators there. The biggest ‘distance’ between myself and other genomics researchers is funding. I could go a lot further.