Commentary / Just for fun

24 hrs in the life of a radiochemist

This post is by Hannah Roberts. Hannah is currently a PhD Student in the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences

Trying to explain what your PhD involves to a friend or family member that is not familiar with your work can be tricky. For example, my mum actually carries around a piece of paper with her detailing what I do so that when her friends ask, she can get it out and tell them! One thing that does reoccur is that many believe that my day to day work is the same as being an undergraduate, attending lectures etc. When I tell them what I actually do they’re always surprised about how much work there is to be completed, and this is especially true when describing the time that I spend at Diamond Light Source down in Oxfordshire.

Experimental work on the synchrotron is a combination of it being exciting, tiring, tense, happy and adrenaline fuelled. Working on the synchrotron is such a privilege but the time I spend there can be challenging, so I thought I’d write a log of 24 hours on the beam written exactly as it happened. Grab your cup of coffee, it’s going to be a long day…

09:30 I set off from Manchester on the train to Didcot Parkway. The trains are already running late which doesn’t give a great start to the day, but I do manage to get a quick picture of Paddington Bear in Paddington Station!

Meeting Paddington Bear in Paddington Station

Meeting Paddington Bear in Paddington Station

13:15 I arrive at Didcot and I’m met by Adam, a post-doc, who has come to pick me up. I arrive at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, pick up my security pass and I’m onto the beamline immediately. The beamline consists of an optics hutch, an experimental hutch and a control cabin which is where we sit. It’s comfortable, but it becomes easy to forget what time of day it is due to the lack of outside windows.

Transferring a sample onto the beamline

Transferring a sample onto the beamline

14:00 My first sample! It’s not a guarantee and sure enough, it doesn’t give the data I was hoping for. I try a similar sample but this also doesn’t work. It’s frustrating as the 4 hours spent preparing the samples was a waste, but I have some different samples to run later on. We move on and try someone else’s sample.

15:00 It’s time for a sample change. The two different modes we work in (transmission and fluorescence) have different measuring times so we decide to put the short transmission samples on during the daytime. This keeps us nice and busy whilst we’re the most awake.

A quick picture of the beamline at the end of our session

A quick picture of the beamline at the end of our session

18:00 We swap to a longer sample and head to the canteen for tea. The food is…interesting, but it’s nice to have a break from the windowless room!

20:00 We’re back on the beam and after looking at the data, we decide it’s time to change the sample. It’s another couple of shorter ones over the next few hours.

21:00 To keep our momentum going it’s always good for us to take a short break from work and the online game Geoguesser is a particular favourite during this time. A couple (hundred) of games later and we’ve not beat the ultimate high score, so we retire back to work in the hope of trying again tomorrow/ in an hour.

23:00 In the hope of getting some sleep, we put a longer sample on and two of us head to bed leaving the remaining two to keep watch for a couple of hours. The hotel is less than a 5 minute walk from the beamline which makes it easy to monitor data collection throughout the night.

05:00 I’m up bright and early to do a sample change. It’s a lot colder than yesterday so I wrap up, meet Adam at the hotel reception and head over to the beamline where we perform a sample change. After topping up the cryostat we’re back at the hotel by 6.30am.

Saying goodbye to Diamond until the next time!

Saying goodbye to Diamond until the next time!

08:00 After trying to get a quick nap in, it’s time for breakfast, where I load up on all the carbs I can get as today will be another long one. I opt for a couple of croissants and toast with an apple.

09:00 Back at the beamline, I have a quick scan over the data before I’m joined by Nick, Gareth, Fred and Adam. The decision is made to change the sample over again. Fred, who is a principal beamline scientist, helps me with some data analysis, and I make progress on a couple of data sets from previous beamtime which I hope to publish in the future.

12:00 Time for lunch and as it is Sunday, it’s a traditional Sunday lunch. To follow, everyone else has bread and butter pudding as their desserts but I play it safe with a fruit flapjack.

13:00 It’s been 24 hours since I arrived at Diamond, but it certainly feels like longer. Another 24 hours to go before I head back to Manchester.

The 24 hours documented above represents a typical session on the beamline, although conditions can change. The following 24 hours after this saw the beam ‘die’ for just over an hour. This meant that during this time, my sample couldn’t be analysed, reducing the number of data scans and therefore quality of data. Although this is not a typical event, it can happen and it can be frustrating. However, it’s not all doom and gloom! The data that I did manage to collect looks okay, and hopefully as I analyse it, I can extract the information that I require.


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