Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Argonne National Laboratory

What do you get when you combine 750 PhDs in a workforce of 2,800, $530 million per year, and 1,500 acres?  That's right.  Argonne National Lab.  Argonne has three major focuses: basic science, applied science and engineering, and scientific user facilities.  I was with a group of students that recently toured the Lab's crystallography facility.  This facility is housed with the syncroton in an exceedingly ugly, yet functional building.  Let's just say that Argonne spends its money on other things beside looks.  The two staff scientists we met with walked us through the crystallography process, from growing to shipping to loading and analyzing.  Students around the country work to crystallize their proteins, then ship them in liquid nitrogen to Argonne.  Once here, the crystals are mounted and delivered to the "beam line" -- analysis pods tapping into the synchroton which produces x-rays.  Basically, even if its speed is constant a particle moving in a circle is constantly accelerating because it is constantly changing direction.  These accelerating particles release energy in the form of x-rays as they accelerate.  I must say that my picture of tapping into the beam line is fuzzy and probably wrong.  Most of the terms used to describe the process made it sound as if the deliverable was water, not radiation!  A system of mirrors is involved, this much I know.  A staff scientist showed us a retired mirror which is likely the most flat object my eyes will ever encounter.  If I remember correctly, the mirror is level to within a few nanometers as you travel across its surface.  At various points along its circumference there are crystallography pods that have a room where X-rays are remotely diverted from the beamline down to a mounted crystal.  The angle at which the crystal is mounted and the X-ray interacts with the cyrstal is varied, and a set of diffraction patterns is obtained.  These diffraction patterns are delivered to a researcher's computer a few feet from the crtstallography chamber.  When an adequate number of diffraction patterns have been obtained, a researcher can analyze them and (hopefully) determine the crystal's structure.  The diffraction patterns can be "stepped through" in a way similar to an MRI.  In the old days, solving a single crystal structure was  enough to get you a PhD.  Today, with the speed of analysis burgeoning to a previously inconceivable value, a single cyrstal structure can be solved in a few hours in a best-case scenario.  Several members of my lab have several solved crystal structures under their belts -- and their graduate career is in nowise finished!
     Questions such as "How did you come to Argonne" and "How are you funded?" opened up several interesting stories.  One of the crystallographers told us bluntly that she did not publish any papers during her graduate or postdoctoral careers.  In a publish-or-perish academic world, the professorial track was not for her.  Besides, she said, she realized that her personality was not conducive to a professorial role.  So, she came to Argonne.  Another staff scientist said that he has focused on user services since grad school, and write user software as his research.  Thus, an environment such as Argonne's is a perfect fit.  These two crystallographers, are completely supported through government agencies.  Others at Argonne raise their finances through private industrial sponsors.  Over lunch we met with a scientist who did just this.  He said that the funding has influenced many of his career choices.  Before coming to Argonne he worked in private industry.  What struck him was that marketing professionals were the ones making key decisions.  PhD-level scientists were told to work on whatever was profitable at the moment, and often ended up following fads instead of taking the risk of predicting where the market would go next.  At Argonne, he warned us, the overhead is very high.  With no tenure, you can stay only as long as you are profitable.  The base cost of hiring an additional staff member is so high that it dwarfs the differences in the salary of a BS- and PhD-level scientist.  Thus, PhD recruits are favored over BS recruits: if you are going to pay the base cost, you might as well hire a PhD.
     The place was fascinating.  It was clear that the people here were at the top of their game.  It must be heady for those working there, and it showed me that grad school is clearly preparation for what comes next.  Competition and achievement are definitely expected in whatever field a person chooses after grad school is complete.

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