Monday, 3 March 2014

Bleary-eyed breakfasts and Harry Potter: getting to know you

The process of consolidating more than three decades of research-derived documents into a digital archive is troublesome and time-consuming. Even with many hours of assistance from an ex-student it's really only the 'easy' tasks that have been completed. Thus, all the published output from me and my team is now collated as a set of electronic documents in folders somewhere out there in the cloud as well as being accessible from my university's repository (shortly to be upgraded), Web of Science/ResearcherID, etc. and mostly searchable using Google Scholar. Likewise, data files exist on various disks and/or in centralised repositories. Even my desk diaries, from before the days of reliable online calendars and their like, have been scanned (and then shredded). What remains are historical and often also personally memorable bits and pieces in all sorts of shapes, sizes and formats, and umpteen logbooks.
The approximately 2 m of shelving consumed by experiment logbooks: everything from my own PhD, postdoc contracts and first 'proper' position to the x-ray, neutron and other experiments undertaken by the various incarnations of my research team once I'd started life as a university academic.
In passing, I recently shared this image via Twitter (with the caption "Three+ decades-worth of research logbooks (vital for any future data re-analysis): how to archive for #openaccess ...") I got responses from various places including from an admirable kindred scientist, @jamie5on, who declared "What a wonderful picture! I'm much more drawn to a shelf of 'real' lab books than even the best electronic notebooks". Whilst I empathise with the sentiment - I much prefer 'real' paper novels to e-books for instance - I'm still left wondering how to archive these for the longer term given that neither my department/university nor my home will be a practicable option for the bulky originals when I finally retire. Why does this matter? It matters because all this work was publicly funded and ought to be accessible, and because I still get requests for snippets of information from fellow scientists (one within the last year which sent me all the way back to my own PhD) and because I have in the past seen too many experiments /measurements needlessly repeated using expensive national and international research facilities. The only workable way forward, I suspect, is to scan them - page by page and inclusion by inclusion - but this will take more hours than I have available, or more funds than I could release in order to pay someone else to do it.

I digress, if only a little. The combination of the glaring absence of impressive-looking postgraduate research student dissertations on my shelves - now replaced by PDF files - and some Christmas and New Year e-mail exchanges with those past members of my team with whom I'm still in contact (I'm delighted to say) conjured up a few memories. It seemed worthwhile briefly to reflect on these simply because they illustrate the human side of research life in the physical sciences: the continuing opportunity to work with talented and creative people has, in many ways, been the absolute highlight of my career.

As Dylan Thomas wrote, it's often a good plan to begin at the beginning. I was appointed to my first academic post as a junior lecturer funded under a short-lived 1980s scheme to inject 'new blood' into university departments; my very first research student, Ann, started her PhD a year later. Despite having benefited from a couple of postdoctoral contracts and then from several more formative years helping to bring to fruition what is now the world-leading ISIS neutron source at the Harwell Research & Innovation Campus and an extended secondment to the USA, I was nevertheless a complete novice when it came to the guidance and supervision of research students. To paraphrase a well-known saying: "Cometh the hour, cometh the woman". And so it was that my professional inexperience found its mitigation in the personality, character and sheer drive of a talented new Chemical Physics graduate. After more than two decades it still astonishes me that we not only successfully learnt from each other how a three-year PhD project ought best to run - to the extent that her thesis won exceptionally positive praise and her work found ready access to good peer-reviewed journals - but managed to do this against the proverbial head-wind. I knew something about amorphous materials and about the use of neutron scattering methods in their study but, for one reason or another, neutron-based experiments were not possible: we were faced with having to identify and learn a wholly new set of techniques. We turned to x-ray absorption spectroscopy, XAS, and found ourselves using a rather 'flakey' beamline at the world's very first fully dedicated x-ray synchrotron, the now-decommissioned SRS at the Daresbury Laboratory. One of the frustrations of doing neutron scattering experiments back then was the extended timescale associated with each measurement (typically 8+ hours); however, one of the immediately obvious contrasts emerged with the realisation that each XAS measurement lasted only half an hour. Benign in itself, when one combines this with the fact that the SRS ran 24/7 and expected, even in the absence of modern-day automation, full use of its facilities by its users it becomes obvious that a multi-day experiment requires shift-working. There was only Ann and me, and we were both learners. Not daring to leave this highly demanding instrument lest it do something nasty to the precious samples or refuse to yield usable data, we stayed at its side. Believe me, there are few things better than sleep-deprivation to allow one to get to know another person in depth.

With the advances that have come in the intervening years, running an experiment has in some ways become much easy - and the hostels are hugely better as places to grab a bit of sleep. (Which itself suggests a future blog post: tales of showers with no doors, food not worthy of the name, ...). It's also become vanishingly rare to attempt the sort of experiments Ann and I undertook without a team of three or more people. And yet still one gets a chance to 'go deeper' with members of the team in this sort of environment than is often possible in the more conventional laboratory-based research work. The essence of this derives from the fact that, even if for only a few days at a time, we are all both living and working together. We swap thoughts over meals for instance; breakfast remains the key get-together moment of the day: the 'night shift' handing over to their replacements and plans of action agreed. It's usually very sociable, although I've had to mediate now and again when tired personalities clash. The improvements in automation and therefore the longer periods of waiting also allow for the sorts of extended conversations rarely held 'back in the lab.', and can reveal hitherto unknown passions. For instance, back in the days when J.K. Rowling was still releasing new Harry Potter books I found myself travelling to join a couple of research students, Vicky and Laura, who had started a synchrotron experiment whilst I was still delivering lectures. I got a text message en route which boiled down to the ultimatum: "Buy and bring with you two copies of the new book or there'll be [unspecified] trouble". The London station book shop at which I found them was giving away free sweets and a bespoke Potteresque bag with each purchase; I think I ate the sweets.

It can be a pain in the neck to have to travel to these large facilities to undertake experiments, and it's certainly difficult to balance it with a family sometimes, but the rewards are not confined to scientific data. I have got to know so many lovely people over the years whilst chatting, sometimes unshaven and disheveled, in good times and through difficulties, that I cannot but be grateful for having been able to enjoy the experience for as long as I have.

  • By the way, for a bit of fun, take a look at this short video. It illustrates how different was the age in which my first research students entered into working with synchrotron x-ray methods. The Synchrotron Song provided the finale to a Review staged each year by the scientific, technical and administrative staff at the SRS during the evening of their annual User Meeting. A year or so back I accepted the challenge from my then fellow STFC Science Board members to find evidence of this review, which had, like Monty Python's parrot, 'ceased to be' a few short years after I started attending the User Meetings. There are only odd bits and pieces surviving, and those were on near-redundant analogue recording media. Not to be defeated, although by circuitous routes, I made contact with the ex-head of the User Liaison Office - the author/performer of the closing song - and after some correspondence it was agreed that a new recording of the finale would be made. Thus, early in 2013 the very people involved at the time and now well into their deserved retirements made a new recording: a fragment from the (scientific) culture of only a few decades ago but seeming to be much further distant. It leaves a clear impression of the rate of change of the intervening years.

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