Will C. Wood High school, Vacaville, CA,USA: graduated in 1998 with honors.
Sacramento State University: Fall 1998- Dropped out with no credits earned.
Solano Community College Fall 1999- Spring 2002- introductory science clasess and general education courses.
University of California, Davis 2002-2004: BSc Chemistry
University of California, Davis 2004-2008: PhD Analytical Chemistry
American system, so no good comparison. Sorry!
Buckeye Ranch- stall cleaner and lesson assistant- 1993-1995
Jack in the Box- fast food cashier- 1998
Call center worker- 1999
Chemistry tutor- 1999-2000
Costco deli temp- Fall 1999
Cell phone sales- Early 2000
Barnes & Noble- sales associate- Fall 2000
Hospital registration and record clerk- Spring 2001- Summer 2004
Graduate student teaching assistant- Fall 2004-Fall 2008
Post-doctoral Fellow, Berkeley Lab- started Jan 2009
Project Scientist, Berkeley Lab, started spring 2012-
Beamline Scientist, COMPRES/Berkeley Lab, started 2013
Principal Beamline Scientist, Diamond Light Source, started Oct 2018
As the Principal Beamline Scientist, I lead the scientific and technical development of the beamlines. I am basically in charge of making sure that we can do the experiments we offer as well as possible, and that we continue to improve our instruments, to benefit researchers from all over the UK and beyond. I am also the main spokesperson for our beamlines- I take responsibility for scientists knowing what we can do for their science and helping them apply for beamtime.
I am a chemist who became crystallographer who now plays with diamonds and lasers and X-rays to figure out the structure of matter. I am also an equestrian, a writer, a slow runner and a dreamer.
Some days I wake up and wonder how the heck I got here- it’s been a wild ride.
5 year old me liked to take things apart and figure out how they worked.
10 year old me read every book she could find.
15 year old me took all the advanced science and math classes available at my Californian high school.
Nearly 19 year old me had a baby on the 1-year anniversary of my high school graduation. Life happens, and this was how life happened to me. Many people expected me to give up on my dreams of a college education. I did not. I worked at a hospital and went to a local college before transferring to the University of California, and completed my BSc in Chemistry. My daughter entered kindergarten the same year I started work on my PhD, also at the University of California, Davis. I examined interesting molecules called fullerenes, which are soccer-ball shaped carbon cages. Doing this work lead me to synchrotron light sources, which are my true love. After completing my PhD, I worked at the Advanced Light Source in the Berkeley hills, across the San Francisco bay from the Golden Gate bridge.
Fast forward to today- I lead a team of scientists and technicians who run two impressive instruments, called beamlines, at Diamond Light Source in south Oxfordshire. Diamond creates X-rays which the beamlines direct to samples. We can examine the atomic structure of the samples and gain an understanding of how the atomic structure is related to the physical and material properties of the samples, like hardness, compressibility, electrical conductivity, melting temperature, and many others. As a team, we strive to make our beamlines the best in the world, so that visiting scientists can achieve their science goals.
In my free time, I love to ride my horse, hang out with my daughter when she visits from the US, run, read, write and draw. I have a pretty substantial Netflix/Amazon Video/Crunchyroll addiction as well😂
Most of my work depends on Crystallography which is the science of crystals. A crystal is composed of atoms which are arranged in the same repeating units in three dimension. When you see tiles repeating a pattern that is called tessellation, which means that a pattern is repeated to fill space- in this case the space that is filled is the floor or wall covered by tiles. Crystals are made of atoms or molecules tessellating in three dimensions. Crystallography lets us use the orderly nature of crystals to figure out how the atoms or molecules are arranged in space. The X-ray beam from Diamond Light Source is fired at the sample crystal and the beam is diffracted, aka split, many ways by the crystal. We measure the deflection of the beam, and the intensity (how much of the beam went this way?) which lets us make a map of the repeating part of the crystal. One major cool part of my job is that I make 3-D pictures of molecules, and sometimes I am the first person to “see” what the molecules look like!
So seeing molecules is cool and all, but sometimes you want more. Maybe you have made a new kind of steel that is going to be used in car frames. You want to understand its strength or maybe if it is resilient (will it bounce back?). In this case we can use crystallography to explore the material properties of your new steel. This calls for a high pressure experiment!
To produce high pressures, we will use diamonds. Yes, diamonds!Diamonds are incredibly hard(hardest natural material!), and will let X-rays and optical light through them. We essentially make a sandwich with the sample as the middle bit, and diamonds for bread. We can apply a force to the wider part of diamonds, and then the narrow tip(called the culet) of the diamonds transmit that pressure to the sample.
We use a gasket to keep the diamonds from crushing the sample, and to keep the diamonds from touching each other- a diamond can only be broken by another diamond. The blue cube in the above right picture is the sample we want to pressureize. The pink sphere is the pressure indicator- usually ruby, which glows at a different color depending on the pressure. The green is a squishy material called the pressure transmitting medium- it can vary depending on how high a pressure we need to go to.
Here is a picture of what a crystal in a diamond anvil cell looks liek if we look thorugh the diamonds with a microscope:
The orange cube is the sample crystal, and the two tiny round things next to it are ruby spheres, which tell us the pressure in the sample chamber, which is the hole in the gasket where the crystal and rubies are. This sample changes colors as it went to higher pressures- it became darker orange, red, then eventually black!
My Typical Day:
My days vary a lot- Diamond Light Source produces X-rays 6 days a week, 24 hours a day, so depending on who is using the X-rays, and what kind of experiment they are doing, my day can be totally different. Most days involve helping visiting scientists, who we call users, prepare for or do their experiments. I could be teaching users how to use the instrument correctly and safely or I could be helping them understand their experimental data. Somedays I spend working with my team on how to make our instruments better: faster, more sensitive, more detailed. Somedays I hide in my office and look at my own data, and write articles about it.
Synchrotrons are not your typical science facility. The X-rays produced by a synchrotron are many times more intense than what researchers can get from an instrument in their university labs, so scientists from around the world apply to come use the instruments, known as beamlines, at Diamond and other synchrotron light sources. Their application, called a proposal, is judged by a panel of other experts in their field, on whether the science deserves time at the synchrotron, which is called beamtime. Once these researchers have an application approved, they become beamline users- their beamtime is scheduled and a member of the beamline team starts emailing them to plan their experiment. Most experiments require a team of users to come to the synchrotron to collect data for at least a day straight, but often times more. A group of users is generally made up of a couple of graduate students being supervised by post-doctoral scholars- people who have finished their doctorate, but don’t yet have permanent university jobs yet. The user group will have a plan to alternate working, so that the beamline is collecting their data 24 hours straight.
A typical week at the synchrotron might be easier to describe-
Monday: starting out the week gently
Walking into Diamond on Monday morning, I would usually walk by the beamlines on my way to my office. The beamlines both have control cabins, where all the experimental equipment can be controlled. The users for the weekend are usually winding up their experiments by Monday, and are also pretty capable at this point- one member of the beamline team, their local contact who is dedicated to helping them, trained them during the previous week. Monday is also when we have our beamline planning meetings, where we discuss what experiments are coming up, and what we need to do to prepare.
Tuesday: Maintenance madness
Tuesday is the one day a week where the Diamond synchrotron is not operating, so X-rays aren’t produced. This is our usual day where we fix anything that might have broken over the last week, and test any new software updates. Each beamline has many motors which move samples and X-ray detectors, so there are lots of things that could possibly break.
Wednesday: Tune up and test
The X-rays get turned back on at 9AM most Wednesdays, so that is when we get the beamlines tuned back up and ready for experiments. The X-rays that the beamline receives are a continuum- like white visible light which is made up of many colours. Just as you can use a prism to select a specific colour from white light, we use two silicon crystals, called a monochromator, to select the X-ray energy that is needed for the experiment. X-rays are difficult because they go through most things- the higher the energy, the more they want to just go through. We use large slabs(1.3m long!) of silicon coated with platinum as mirrors to steer and focus the X-ray beams to the sample. When the X-rays are off, the monochromator and mirrors cool down, so Wednesday morning is often needed to optimize everything again. We also use this time to test out new tools and techniques on the beamline- this means that our normal workday on a Wednesday might be a long one!
Thursday: User time!
When new users arrive on the beamline, they need to be taught how to use the beamline safely and efficiently. This can be an overwhelming experience so we try to introduce the users to the beamline gently. First we teach them how to interlock the beamline hutch, which is where the experiment will take place- the X-rays are extremely intense and dangerous, so we have a lot of safety procedures to ensure that X-rays can only enter the hutch and hit the sample once people are safe outside. Then the users will watch us collect data on a standard which shows them the important parts of the beamline that they will need to know. After that we will help them with their initial data collections, with them driving the beamline and us observing. By the evening, the beamline team will have a good feeling of how the users are doing.
Friday: How’s it going?
If the users started on Thursday, then by Friday, we are hoping to get them ready for the weekend. We want them to be as independent as possible- so checking in with them after their first night on the beamline is important! We make sure that they didn’t have any issues- our users can call us at any time if they have problems, but sometimes they can’t wake us, or they are too embarrassed to try. Everyone on a beamline has spent a weekend on the beamline helping users, but we really would rather not- so Fridays are an important day to clear the air and get things working.
Weekends: Yes they count too‼
Sometimes experiments are complex, sometimes the users are inexperienced and need more support. Sometimes things just break. No matter why the call goes out, our team is dedicated to helping out and making sure that the science can get done.
After 7-8 weeks of 24/6 operation, Diamond shuts down for a three week maintenance shutdown. This is a time where we either do major upgrades to our beamlines, go on restful vacations or go to much less restful scientific conferences. At conferences we will talk about our science, advertise our beamlines and reach out to scientists who might need our beamlines, but don’t realize it yet! Diamond just went on shutdown last Friday(6 Mar), and I sure sighed in relief! It’s an exciting life, but excitement for many weeks can be exhausting!
What I'd do with the prize money:
I would like more students to get to experience the synchrotron, even if they can’t travel. I would like to use the money to support putting Diamond on Google Street view, so students can have a virual tour of Diamond. This would require a compatible camera, which the prize money would go towards.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Inquisitive, passionate, gregarious
What did you want to be after you left school?
I had no idea. It was an issue
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Occasionally yes. Mostly for mouthing off to teachers.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Muse vs Green Day. varies by the day.
What's your favourite food?
Sushi or ice cream. Its a tough call. Tacos are up there too.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Run a half marathon this year, upgrade my beamline and have my husband live in this country
Tell us a joke.
...but all the good chemistry jokes Argon??