Night Shifts at the Berkeley Synchrotron
Post by Jane Carskaddan (Colgate '24).
While Paul and the Gulf team were digging through sediment on their boats, I was back at Colgate hard at work on a different project. Together with biophysics professor Rebecca Metzler, I’ve been looking at the microstructure of shells from Paul’s archives to see if anthropogenic influences have changed the way bivalves grow their shells. My days in the lab aren’t as eventful as the rest of the group’s days in the field, but I still got to do a bit of traveling for my project this summer. I got the opportunity to go to Berkeley, California to gather data on my samples using an X-ray Photoemission Electron Microscope (XPEEM) at Berkeley Labs. An XPEEM is a very powerful microscope powered by a synchrotron, which is a type of particle accelerator. It's used for all sorts of things, but for my project we wanted to look at the different orientations of the crystals that make up my shells. So, Rebecca’s lab set out to California with a freezer of shellfish samples. I spent our free day exploring beautiful San Francisco with two of my labmates, Sarah and Gabe, where we saw sea lions, ate dim sum, and touched the freezing Pacific Ocean (much less welcoming than the Gulf). The next morning at 7 am was the official start of Rebecca’s time on the XPEEM. She had 48 straight hours and we had to make every second count. To tackle those hours, we split into pairs: Sarah and Edlin for the day shifts, me and Gabe for the nights. Rebecca would be up for the entire 48, a fact that made me think twice before complaining too much about my own exhaustion. So, Gabe and I reported to the synchrotron just as the sun was starting to set at 7 pm. You walk into the big pink building and are immediately confronted by huge machines with wires sprawling every which way. It's a little intimidating, but the fact that a lot of the equipment is covered in tin foil (to keep heat in) somewhat took away from that effect. The XPEEM itself doesn’t look like a microscope at all. If you look at the picture of me in front of it, everything behind me is the microscope. The sample sits inside one of the portholes. There’s also a giant wall of controls that was double my height. I only ever saw Rebecca adjust a few of them, so maybe they’re just there for show. Working on the XPEEM is largely uneventful and very slow - you run scans that take ten minutes and run the data through an image generating program that takes twenty. It takes hours to collect enough data for a whole shell. Edlin and Sarah spent their day on one of their samples of barnacles that they hoped would only take their shift to finish. We ended up working on that same sample for most of the night. I won’t lie, seeing how long those barnacles were taking was really frustrating to me. By the middle of the night I was so tired and just wanted to see the images of my shells. We finally got my first shells loaded somewhere around 5 am and produced a few images by the time my shift was over at 7 am. I was so excited after waiting all night that I almost wanted to stay longer and keep working, but my need for sleep outweighed that desire (by the time I got to bed I had been awake for almost 24 hours). The second night was more of the same, except this time I was well rested from sleeping all day and actually got to work on my shells for most of the night. We left California the next day after seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and took a few days to reset our sleep schedules. It was an exhausting experience, but for me it was worth it. I love microscopy and this type of data collection. I found myself feeling very comfortable surrounded by gigantic instruments at a particle accelerator in the dead of night. I legitimately hope that I will be able to return one day in some capacity, even if it means consuming a worrying amount of caffeine again.
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