GP's Antarctic expedition could inform future mission to Mars

The experiences of an Army GP trainee, who put together the first all-female group to walk across the Antarctic, could inform a future manned mission to Mars, researchers told the RCGP annual conference.

Major Nicola Wetherill (second from left) and the Ice Maidens team
Major Nicola Wetherill (second from left) and the Ice Maidens team

Major Nicola Wetherill, an ST3 GP trainee, came up with the idea of making the expedition all-female after noticing that women in the Army were often under-represented on courses and activities.

She told the conference that the six-woman 'Ice Maidens' team realised that there was very little research around women undertaking extreme endurance expeditions, so they approached the Defence Medical Services to offer themselves as ‘guinea pigs’. As a result the Army undertook research on remote monitoring, psycohological aspects and the physiological impact of the expedition.

GP Dr Jodie Blackadder-Weinstein, lecturer at the Academic Department of Military Practice and one of the researchers working on the psychological study, told the conference that the findings from their work were feeding into NASA’s Mars project.

But she also added that there was much that GPs could learn from the research about how they cope day-to-day in their own challenging environment.

‘Aviation medicine is a specialty that is growing and it is now becoming more aviation/space because a trip to Mars is becoming realistic,’ she said.

Monitoring teams

‘There is currently lots of research about putting people into environments and monitoring teams to see just how you select them and what you’re looking for in a team that will be together, in the case of Mars, for two or three years and seeing each other every single minute of every single day in a very small space.

‘The Antarctic is a perfect place for comparison because you have daily threats to your life, you are battling the elements, living in confined spaces and if you’re a team and you’re not getting on, you’re in for a pretty horrific 60 days – or three years in the case of a trip to Mars.’

Major Wetherill told the conference that the Ice Maidens spent 61 days in the Antarctic and walked 1,700km in total. They carried all their own equipment, with sledges that weighed 80kg at the start of the trip and battled temperatures as low as -56 degrees. Planning, training and preparation for the expedition took two years.

Along with the physical challenges of the cold, weight loss and threat of frostbite, the team also had to deal with psychological challenges.

'Being a very small team one of the things that was very disorientating were white outs – you had no idea which way was up or down,' explained Major Wetherill. 'You also had a constant threat that you were going to fall into a crevasss and fall to a very cold and lonely death 500 metres down. So all this was a very psychological toll that you had to bear and prepare for.'

What can GPs learn

The psychological research involved personality and values assessments, which were undertaken before the team left and as soon as they returned. The women also completed a weekly rating form on their handheld devices.

‘The big thing we wanted to look at was resilience,’ said Dr Blackadder-Weinstein. The research was conducted in partnership with the University of Minnesota, who in turn were feeding this into the much wider NASA Mars project.

Dr Blackadder-Weinstein said aside from the Mars project the research could teach GPs and their teams a lot about ‘how we can manage better in our own working environments day to day’.

She cited examples including how clear are practices about having a shared goal? Do we know enough about resolving problems and how do we become better at dealing with team conflict?

Major Wetherill said that seeing the research from the expedition published had been gratifying. ‘Just recently a lot of the research has been presented and it’s great to see that so much more than six women crossing Antarctica has come out of it,’ she said.

Read more from the RCGP annual conference

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