Monday, 25 April 2011

One Wednesday

ESA has started thinking about recruiting next year's research MD, and
asked me to write a 'day in the life' description of what I'm doing.
And as I really don't have much else to tell at the moment, I thought
I would post it up here.
Got up at 0845 today.  It's a bit of a struggle climbing out of bed,
after five hours sleep.
There is usually only a couple of other guys, Angelo and Andrea B when
I go to get my breakfast, and today it is the same.   I'm too groggy
to chat and besides, my spoken Italian isn't so great so I just read
yesterdays' newspaper until I have slugged back enough coffee to
overcome the sleepiness. Then I wander round and chat for a while. The
technical guys all start work at 0800 so they have come and gone by
the time I get there, and the astronomers get up at 1800 and work
through the hours of darkness. The others will come and go as they can
fit around the demands of their experiments.Today I have to be in the lab for 10.00am to rig Pascal, the
seismologist, with the LTMS3 gear as he is heading out for a hard
day's work digging one of his shelters out from snow drifts. It's the
first outdoor test for the LTMS-3 gear and so I'm a little nervous. I
don't want to break ESA's precious gear - there's only 3 of these
little boxes in the world and two of them are here. But today's a
good day, the temperature is a relatively warm -60, and Pascal's going
to be working physically hard, so he'll be generating a lot of heat,
so it's a good day to test it.
Pascal's late.So, I look at what else I've got to do today, and decide to get on
with repairing the EEG cap. On yesterday's tests a couple of the leads
were playing up and running through all the usual troubleshooting
steps didn't sort the problem so as a last resort I'm replacing the
leads. I'm not particularly keen to do it because I'll use two of the
last three replacement leads I have and if I use the third no-one's
going to be parachuting in any more. There isn't any more supplies
coming until the first raid or plane in November, so we all have to be
very careful with the resources we have.Pascal arrives. I set him up with a vest that has electronic panels
that can monitor heart rate, ECG, respiratory rate, oxygen
saturations, temperature, and accelerometry, and I stream an ECG trace
to the laptop to ensure it's working. Looks good. One problem though,
there's a jacket to go over the top with pockets to hold the
datalogger and other extension bits, and the pockets sit over the
abdomen. Neither he nor I are happy about this because he'll be
digging, and they'll get in the way. I give it some thought and try a
radio harness, which has chest pockets instead and that works much
better. Happy, Pascal heads off for a hard day outside.And I head back to bed for an hour. I was up until 0400 this morning.
Each week I put three guys though a four day sequence of tests -
different tests each day - and each Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday one
of the crew starts the protocol. This week it's Angelo, the
meteorologist, Paolo, the IT/communications guy, and Andrea C, the
station doctor/station leader going through the protocol. On the first
day they do two hours of computer and questionnaire tests. Last night
the guy who started is bit of a night owl and evening for him is a bit
later than for most people. So my 'evening' tests got done from 0130
to 0300. The tests themselves could have been done a bit quicker but I
always find the guys have questions about the project, and always too
I have to do a bit of cajoling to persuade them to do the more
demanding computer tasks. So it takes quite a bit longer that it could.Paolo wanders past my door on the way to the radio room. Looks like he
had a late night too. He's due to be swallowing a temperature sensor
as early as possible today, and doing the 'lab day' this afternoon.
Shall I go and ask him to swallow it now? Hmmm... not yet. I need
these guys to go along with my experiments for a year and they do it
all voluntarily, so I'm careful to keep everyone on-side. Let's leave
it an hour or so.Lunch is quite quiet, both the astronomers are still in bed, and
Angelo is often late as some measurement he has to do seems to be
coinciding recently. There is only eight of us there. It's a very good
meal as usual.Afterwards I check everything is set up for the afternoon testing
session with Paolo and then I spend an hour wrestling with a new
program that refuses to function like we expected it to. I've been
running into compatibility problems since day one, and I've been on a
steep learning curve on how to troubleshoot. This time I can't solve
the problem, and I will have to email the designers in Europe for
advice. Because of the upload/download arrangements, plus the time
difference, it tends to be thirty six hours before I have the answer.
So, put that problem aside for a while. Frustrating, but there's
nothing more I can do this end. And I get on with coding and backing
up the data generated in the last day or so.
In the afternoon Paolo comes up to the lab for 'the lab day', as we
have taken to calling it, It's four concentrated hours of testing
involving cognitive tasks with EEG monitoring, mood questionnaires,
blood and saliva sampling, an exhaustive exercise test in the gym and
then returning to the lab to repeat some of the tests.
I set up the EEG cap and at first it all looks good when I start up
the recording, but I turn on another computer, Paolo turns his head in
the same moment and all the leads go off on an interference pattern.
It takes twenty minutes of detailed checking of every piece of
equipment before I figure out that the 'ground' lead on the cap's
cable is simply being pulled tight, and freeing it stops the
interference pattern. Phew, I was getting worried there. But I have
found that the problems I encounter do seem to work out OK reasonably
quickly.I and Paolo finish at 1930. The samples are frozen, the EEG and data
files all backed up, questionnaires coded and I've still got half an
hour to rest before dinner. Not bad, especially with that cable
problem to sort. Andrea, who's been keeping radio watch, wants to get
away. We have to keep a radio watch whenever anyone is outside the
base, and when Paolo is busy everyone has a responsibility to help
take a turn. So I relieve him, and sit and do some admin in the radio
room.Dinner is at eight, and everyone is back at the base. As I climb the
stairs I check the rota by the washing-up room because I can't
remember when I'm next down on cleaning duty or on washing up duty. We
take turns in rotation and so every fourteen days you do a day of
each. It's a while yet before my next turn, happy days. Mental note;
it's David for washing up, and he always helps me out when it's my
turn, I'll make sure I repay the favour.As usual everybody is up for dinner and as usual, it's a good laugh.
Everybody in this crew gets on very well. Language at the table is a
mix of French, Italian and English. There are only three crew who can
speak all three languages but it is never a problem, and I never see
anyone feeling left out. I'm very lucky, speaking English as my native
language as all but two of the crew can speak English well and the
other two are picking it up very fast. It also means that English is
usually spoken when French guys speak to Italians. I do tend to spend 
some of my Saturday afternoons helping correct some guy's weekly
reports, which are all submitted in English. But it's an easy way to
help everyone out, I'm very happy to do it.
After dinner I help with the clearing and cleaning but I'm not really
needed as so many of the crew help, so after I've shown my face for
long enough I head back to the lab to set up. I have two evening
experiments to set up.First, some computer based cognitive testing with some basic EEG and
ECG monitoring, and some questionnaires on mood and generally coping
with the winterover for Andrea C, the station leader who is starting
day one. Then, later I will be setting up sleep monitoring EEG, sats,
temperature and heart rate monitoring ? AKA polysomnography - on
Angelo, who is on day three.Finally I'm done by 0100. I check my email before I go and I find that
the Mars500 crew have sent me an email to say hello, with some photos.
I forward it to all the crew and within five minutes Domenico bursts
into my lab, full of excitement and plans for how we should reply to
them. The Mars500 guys are doing a remarkable thing and they
definitely deserve that we make a big effort. An hour later I'm
heading to bed again when Domenico is back again, having seen an
aurora outside. Unfortunately it's faded by the time we look.So, I head off to bed finally at 0200, thinking I really should phone
home as it's a good opportunity, being up so late (in the winter
months here we are 7 hours ahead, and finding times to call are
difficult), but I need to be up at 0800 to take down the
polysomnography on Angelo. Another night, then. Tomorrow I'm going to
be sleeping on the hoof again, as I have guys on day two, three and
four of the protocol. Still, it's only two intense days in the middle
of the week as the three protocols overlap. On friday and Saturday my
workload is much less and I catch up on my sleep then. This friday in
the afternoon I'm helping Andrea C, the station doctor teach initial
prehospital trauma care to the crew. Somewhere before then I'll have
to go and figure out how the stretcher gets put together.
Every day is different. I'm having a great time. But I can
assure you, I'm not going to go soft here!
The environment here continues to amaze. A few days ago the
temperature rose by 30 degrees C in six hours, from -67 to -37.
And a strange thing happened that same day. In the afternoon the EEG
cap simply would not work. I got interference in all 32 leads,
drowning out all signals, and I just could not find the reason why.
And that night I found that both the radios for my polysomnography
equipment couldn't transmit. Again, I couldn't find anything wrong
with the gear. The day after, everything mysteriously worked again.
Pascal recorded a huge standing electrical field in the atmosphere
but the consensus is that it couldn't have interefered with my gear
because we're insulated by the station, which is just a big metal box.
The local magnetic field was normal. So we have no idea what caused
such weirdness. Thankfully, whatever it was, it went away. Oh well,
This Is Antarctica.
Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E
Satellite uploads at: 02.30, 09.00 and 14.00 UTC
Local time UTC + 8
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