An Arctic Researcher Confesses Her Relationship Woes

| February 3, 2015 | 9 Comments

By Alia Khan


I love my life as a polar field scientist and wouldn’t trade it, but like any job, it has its tradeoffs.

For the past ten years, I’ve been fortunate to travel, live, and work in many regions of the world—from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from below sea level in Bangladesh to the Khumbu-Everest Himalayas. I’ve poured my energy into my research, and set collecting new life experiences as my first priority. I took every opportunity to travel or collect data for projects I consider worth pursuing. It’s the life I wanted for my 20s, and I lived it with the notion that if I’m going to meet Mr. Right, I’ll meet him on an adventure. (How romantic would it be to tell your children their parents met while conducting research at the ends of the earth?)

But my work and travels have left little time for a personal life, for cultivating long-term relationships. I haven’t met Mr. Right.

I’m ready to change course and start settling down. But as many other adventurers know, once you have that traveling bug, slowing the momentum is easier said than done. And the professional pressure to diversify my academic work experience only further delays my nesting desires.

My general philosophy thus far has been that a relationship would only hold me back from travel, degrade the quality of my experience abroad, and distract me from my work. I set that intention back when I took a year off from my undergrad to explore new frontiers—to be a ski bum in the Colorado Rockies, where I became very familiar with the adage: The odds are good, but the goods are odd.

With more experience, I realized this applies to any area with a high density of men but especially in ski towns, where the male populace is focused not on finding love but instead on supporting their powder addiction. While I hold this as an equally worthy cause, I also know that most guys focused on partying and shredding pow have trouble holding down a seasonal job, let alone a relationship.

The maxim was less relevant in the romances I had while backpacking alone across Asia and during my year and a half in Norway, where the average male citizen’s fitness level is on par with Olympians and men in Björn Borg boxer brief ads. But the saying definitely rings true in my dating experiences as a polar researcher. The extreme exoticness of many of these research locations—the Himalayas, Antarctica, Svalbard, and the Andes—attracts men with similar life perspectives, a curiosity for the unknown, excitement for adventure, and often an obsession with the outdoors. Simply put, the people who are attracted to this kind of work form such an exceptional—and mostly male—community that the Polar Regions would presumably be hot spots for meeting outdoorsy, travel-minded bachelors. Because of my personal trials and tribulations in field romance, though, I know better.

These places don’t necessarily attract the types looking for long-term love.

I seldom know my colleagues before entering a long field deployment. I met one set of my teammates the day before we boarded a helicopter in Kangerlussuaq and got dropped in the middle of the Greenland Ice Sheet for two weeks without internet, heat, or other modern-day amenities. Another time, I shared a camp in Antarctica with the same two people for four months.

We all end up sharing tight quarters in damp, cold tents or guesthouses, cooking and sharing meals while also shivering. Dinners are shared over intimate discussions with the same common themes: food, poop, and sex.

Relationships in these situations—whether platonic or romantic—are intensified not only by the isolated living conditions but also by the fact that you rely on your teammates to do their jobs. In addition to scientists like me in these camps, there are those in support roles who handle daily chores like cooking or scooping out the pooper. I am literally dependent on them for survival. Which is part of why working in these harsh environments creates an intense tie between people who were strangers just weeks before. The extreme loneliness you can feel while navigating solo in a foreign country is similar to the emotion I might feel after weeks of maintaining high morale in an uncomfortable, cramped, and cold polar field camp with a variety of egos. This unique emotion, when shared, creates a bond that can really only be understood by those who have experienced it.

Over the past ten years, I’ve shared that strange bond with amazing men who, like me, truly love what they do and love the resulting lifestyle, whether they work in science, skiing, field support, mountain safety, or transport. These men have set similar intentions for this stage of life—aiming to have fun and gather as many experiences as possible—so translating a field affair into the real world is nearly impossible.

With limited time to build any sort of foundation, a romance that sparks on expedition can’t flourish into a relationship unless both parties stay in the same place for longer than a few months. So, invariably, we connect over the extraordinary landscape of our current location and obscure work then part ways amicably, hoping to cross paths again in a couple months—or years.

This community is afraid of commitment.

In 2014 alone, I’ve spent three months in Antarctica, three months in the Arctic, and three months in Chile—all for field work and research related to my PhD. That’s nine months away from home. Between the demands of research, publishing, and looking for a stable long-term job, I don’t see when I could find time to start a family, let alone time to invest in a relationship that could lead to one.

I’ve been dodging relationships for fear of missing out on my own personal adventures. And I have had lots of those. But now I want to build stronger roots in my current hometown. I’m 29 and finding my life focus changing, especially when I’m in places like Scandinavia or Chile, surrounded by young families with adorable babies bundled up against the cold.

When I feel particularly lonely and like I am making a personal sacrifice for scientific and career advancement, I remind myself that it’s a privilege to be able to explore the world while collecting data for a greater public service, for the purpose of understanding the human-induced warming of the cryosphere. I wouldn’t make any choices differently.

But where does this leave me for dating in my 30s? Do I have to choose between fieldwork and a relationship?

In the generation before me, I see women who have managed to do it all: have a successful polar science career and also a loving family. I’d guess that if I found someone, I could make a relationship work. But finding that person is the hardest part as a field researcher. Still, I’m hopeful for a man who will accept my passion to travel and conduct fieldwork but also share my equally strong desire to have a family, so we can find that balance—together.

This article was originally published in Women’s Adventure magazine‘s Winter 2014-15 issue.

Category: Articles, Travel

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Written by the dedicated, hard-working Women's Adventure staff and their very generous team of volunteer writers. Want to lend a hand at making this splendid magazine even more splendid? Contact us at and let us know!

Comments (9)

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  1. colleen sharpe says:

    I love this article. It resonates.with my own romantic To Be Continued story.Though very different experiences (exotic travel plus art world career) I felt less a misfit in my own search for Mr Right. Heck, I’m just looking for Mr Can Relate and Not Be Threatened by my life stories, at this point. Thank You Alia

  2. Meghan L says:

    There are some professions & occupations that are not conducive to cultivating love. Most people really need a reasonable amount of togetherness for that to happen.

    It’s not impossible, but it is more difficult if you’re always away from extended periods.

  3. allisonlee9 says:

    Alia! I LOVED LOVED LOVED your gritty honesty about the love vs wanderlust dilemma! I’m 31 & find myself mulling over the same issue you bring up (although I was once married for 5 years) and I just wanted reach out and say thanks for writing this! I guess it all comes down to keep doing ya thing until ya feel like you dont want to anymore! Things seem to have always lined up in hind sight.

    – Allison Lee

  4. Bethann says:

    I used to think that I needed to find someone to make my my life complete, but I now realized that I was the only one that needed to make my whole and I could be happy being a single adventurous woman who is not afraid to try new things and go it alone. Although It took me until I was 50 to come to this conclusion. But I am happy and love life.

    • colleen sharpe says:

      I think we each have our own values. E.g.I am a happy, empowered single woman adventurer for 20+ years. I don’t “need” a partner “to complete me” but I value companionship, intimacy and connection in a committed relationship. It is different for each of us. For myself, all the mountain peaks and sunsets don’t mean as much without someone to share them with.

  5. Jean says:

    Your honesty is refreshing. If you wish to stay in your chosen career doing the research and fieldwork, then it may require a partner who has an consuming interest also but you both would have to live apart for several months.

    Keep in mind, many couples worldwide live this life, especially when 1 partner goes to a different country to be a temporary worker on a work visa… it’s not great especially if there are children.

    For couples without children it requires a loving, trusting relationship with daily communication that is joyous and each partner wants to learn from the other.

  6. Rachael says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this with an open ending! There is no right answer and we get to make up our own story book endings 🙂

    30-yr old lady here who has worked and traveled all over as well. That pang of feelings you talk about when seeing young families with bundled up babies is a pretty powerful thing…but not enough to derail a decade of career passion.

    Good luck on your personal/professional journey, it’s really nice to know there are more of us out there!

  7. Tina says:

    You are only 29? Don’t bother dating until your thirties! You can have it all, but first, you must have patience.

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