Tales of the lab: 3 A day at the synchrotron

Going to a synchrotron facility always feels like being a real scientist.

Even after spending so many years in super hi-tech labs, there is always a very special feeling when going there. It is a little bit like going to Antarctica, you know, the very isolated research base with all the most renowned scientists.

Actually, it is a little bit like Antarctica, remote. Since it is a really large facility, it is often located in the countryside out of town and requires special planning for the trip.

If you have no idea of what it looks like, I invite you to look at this link:


The large circular building is the synchrotron light source per se.

In one sentence, it is a very intense X-ray beam that travels in a circle. At some points, the circle is open and a fraction of the X-ray beam is directed towards a hub, where scientists can carry on their experiments.

All the other buildings around are either laboratories, offices, conference rooms, or lodging and restaurants.

There is always a little village around a synchrotron light source because it is a fairly rare facility, only a few in the best countries, so researchers from all over the world gather there for some time.

Also, having some “beamtime”, ie being granted access to one hub for experiments, is very expensive: you want to make the most of the time you have, literarily.

You want to be available 24/7 during your beamtime. This allows you to be on the spot if a problem arises, and to provide quick solutions to solve the issue and still have time to run the test. Talk to a researcher coming back from synchrotron, the first thing he/she will tell you: “oh you won’t sleep much that week”.

Yes, recovery time is needed after a long synchrotron session. After that, it is weeks and months of data analysis and proposal writing for the next round of experiments.

For each beamtime you need to write a proposal as if it were a grant funding, only much more specific, shorter and precise. Typically, you will need to state that you need access to the synchrotron intense X-ray beam light for this particular measurement, that it is important if not crucial for the advancement of scientific knowledge and humanity, and that there is no other method less costly available that would allow to do the measurement. It is synchrotron or nothing.

This proposal will be reviewed by a panel of experts and graded according to their priority in terms of relevance, but also feasibility and chance of success. If you don’t get approved, you may resubmit to the next call, typically every four months. There is also the option to go to the woods and pick up four-leaf clovers.

If you already know a network of people and are lucky enough that they have spare beamtime, they might call you up. Indeed, when experiments finish earlier, it is better to use the remaining time for other experiments than to waste it up.

All this creates a very specific atmosphere at a synchrotron that you usually do not find in a standard research lab at a university. At least for my experience so far. The main difference between a synchrotron team and a standard lab team is that at the synchrotron there is really a full collaboration of “random” people, usually the best in their fields, who are really excited to work at 200% in a very short time frame on a very specific project. Random people because it is a motley collection of experimentalists, of physicist, chemists, theorist, computer analysts, technicians, electricians. And usually only one in each field.

To make most of the time, each person is dedicated to one specific task. This results in a very research-focus and I-want-to-work-with-you atmosphere that is not always found in all chemistry lab for example, where people run several projects in parallel and have a different set of priorities.

Since there is only one expert in one field, questions rise by interest, curiosity and the need to understand deeply how it is possible for me to help you. Each member of the team is also bound by the research and the tiredness. Everything outside the experiment has momentarily become insignificant: no other projects, no other meetings, no other pressure. Relaxing by discovering new people, new areas of expertise, new ways of thinking. A little bit like a summer camp, but with data and answers to research questions at the end.

Or maybe I’ve just been very lucky so far.

image: A rabbit from Grenoble’s synchrotron.

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