I recently wrote a post reflecting on my four years at the University of Bath: the highs, the lows, and the choices I’d made. I concluded that I wouldn’t have wanted to study chemistry anywhere else, and that the unforeseen hurdles and challenges actually resulted in positive outcomes. What I didn’t touch upon was what I intend to do next. The truth is… I don’t know!
Fourth year was undoubtedly a stressful year. Since my degree was an integrated Masters, this year involved undertaking a laboratory research project alongside my study modules. Aside from lectures, your time was your own – you had to balance lab work, data analysis, and keeping on top of work. This left very little time to be thinking about what to do post-uni, and any time I did dedicate to this was soon overridden by a niggling voice in my head telling me I should be working. Now, having graduated, I have too much time to think about it.
SPOILER ALERT! This is going to be an incredibly nerdy post. I’m going to write about something that has shaped a large part of my university experience, and that immediately comes to mind when I think about the future. This post is about SYNCHROTRONS. I know.
What is a synchrotron? Good place to start. The only synchrotron I knew of prior to university was CERN, the particle accelerator in Switzerland. Since then, I’ve discovered that there are dozens of synchrotrons around the world, including a major research centre in the UK. A synchrotron is a doughnut shaped building that accelerates electrons to nearly the speed of light. When the electron beam changes direction, it produces X-rays that are billions of times brighter than those used to image your bones in hospitals. There are different stations coming off the ring called ‘beamlines’ and they are able to harness the X-rays for many different purposes, but mainly for studying materials on the atomic scale. This works because the wavelengths of X-rays are similar to atomic distances. I won’t go in to details…
If you think your research project would benefit from using the facilities at a synchrotron, you must go through a rigorous proposal system where you try to convince a panel of experts that your work is worthy of such resources. If your proposal is accepted, you go to the synchrotron for ‘beamtime’. Beamtime is like gold dust; it costs a bomb, and you’re usually only accepted if you can guarantee a publication from the data. When I say it’s expensive, I mean tens of thousands of pounds per day.
I was first introduced to beamtime during my placement at the European Synchrotron, Grenoble. I was asked to help a PhD student on her experiment, and I was only too happy to oblige. There is one issue. Since beamtime is so expensive, you should use every single minute wisely. If you’re given 48 hours of beamtime, you use 48 hours of beamtime. This means shift work, night work, and coffee at all hours. I once played Cards Against Humanity at 4am on the beamline.
Over the course of my placement year, I assisted on several beamtimes and even had beamtime of my own. I felt honoured to have had such experiences by the age of 21, and I assumed that would be the end of my friendship with synchrotrons. But alas, I was wrong!
My research project in fourth year was interlinked with the project of a PhD student in the same group. He was granted three days of beamtime at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire, the UK’s national synchrotron. To my great delight, I was asked to come along and assist. I can’t claim that Didcot’s scenery was of quite the same calibre as that of Grenoble, but I certainly had a brilliant time. My shifts were 3am (yes you read that correctly) to 4pm. We had at least two people on the same shift with an hour’s overlap in between in order to debrief. I recall preparing samples in the lab before sunrise and forcing myself to sleep at 8pm just to get enough sleep. I know this all sounds horrendous, but I loved it.
This is quite an alien world to people who have never experienced beamtime. To help you out a bit, I’ve answered some FAQs for you!
Are synchrotrons dangerous? Synchrotrons are not dangerous, but the high-energy X-rays that come out of the beamline will kill you in 2 seconds flat. To avoid this, the beamline is kept separate from the control room, and you must complete a thorough search of the hutch after mounting your sample before you can turn the beam on. There are also radiation counters on hand, emergency stop buttons, and lots and lots of lead…
What do synchrotrons smell like? Have you ever taken your car on the Channel Tunnel? It smells exactly like the containers you drive in to.
How do you know what to do? The more you use synchrotron facilities, the more you get used to it. Each beamline has a beamline scientist or a local contact who will be involved with the running of the experiment and usually helps with data acquisition and analysis. They are often the unsung heroes of beamtime.
Who pays? Yeah, it’s certainly not the researcher who pays. Synchrotrons are funded by governing bodies and partner organisations. The European Synchrotron is supported by 22 member and associate countries which allows ‘free’ beamtime for scientists who come from these countries.
What’s the difference between different beamlines? Different beamlines have different uses. One may be designed for study tiny crystals whilst another is better for floppy proteins. Toyota have their own beamline at SPring-8, a synchrotron in Japan, for testing their products.
The reason why I’ve written about these state-of-the-art facilities is because my experience with them, thanks to Bath, has lead me to discover a realm of science that I didn’t know existed. Synchrotrons have applications in chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and medicine – they are at the forefront of interdisciplinary, collaborative scientific innovation. The international X-ray community is world-leading and ever-evolving, and something I’d love to be part of in the future. Even though I don’t specifically know what I’ll be up to next, I don’t think this is the last I’ll see of these massive, elegant doughnuts. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.