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Featured Fellow: Peter Suedfeld

Most people’s idea of a great summer vacation doesn’t include being holed up in an abandoned research station in Nunavut while analyzing — and being analyzed by — half a dozen other psychologists. But Peter Suedfeld isn’t like most people.

Suedfeld, a Holocaust survivor who went on to become a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, became interested in how people cope with isolated, restricted, monotonous and low-stimulus environments. He began to study the effects solitary confinement had on prisoners, then expanded his focus to examining isolation in polar regions.

His research has taken him to both polar regions, including two trips to Nunvut’s Ellef Ringnes Island, where he and his colleagues ran two months of experiments on each other while completely isolated from the outside world at the abandoned Isachsen research station. Although the environment — misty, muddy and complete with abandoned vehicles and buildings — could have served as the setting for a horror movie, Suedfeld says the trip really wasn’t bad at all.

Suedfeld has always been interested in studying the physical characteristics of such harsh environments and their effects on people who spend time in them, so it seems natural that he has turned his attention to astronauts. And while he doesn’t think he’ll be able to organize a first-hand research trip to space, he still plans on getting near some of the Earth’s more isolated regions soon. “I think,” he says, “that I’m going to take my wife on a cruise to the Antarctic.”

— Joshua Rapp Learn

(Photo courtesy Dept. of Psychology, University of British Columbia)

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