So I promised you an explanation…

I’m in snowy, freezing Madison, Wisconsin to look at tropical algal cells… go figure. I’m currently sitting at one of the many computer screens we have at our end station, in the middle of a seriously 1970’s building which is itself in the middle of a snow-covered field in the middle of nowhere.


Why? Well the Synchrotron Radiation Center is the only place in the world with a dedicated environmental infrared spectroscopy beamline. In particular, it’s one of the only ones in the world with a Focal Plane Array detector. That means that I can take images, rather than single point spectra, of my little algal cells (which are 10 microns in diameter!) and get a whole pile of information about the distribution of their proteins, lipids and carbohydrates.

This is very cool. Trust me.

Trouble shooting on day 1

I gave you all a bit of rundown of the basics of FTIR spectroscopy (Fourier Transform Infrared) but it’s one of a few light-based analytical techniques than can be enhanced by the use of a Synchrotron as a source of light generated by electrons spinning really, super, unbelievably fast in a huge ring. A Synchrotron is basically just a gigantic light bulb that we use to improve noise in spectral data; which means we can see smaller things. This is especially important for the samples I’m interested in, as you can see in the super-awesome-and-high-tech-graphic below.

A spectral image is made up of a whole pile of individual spectra in “pixels” (the boxes below). The peak heights in the spectrum correspond to the concentration of the particular component so you can get something like a night-vision heat-seaker map… thing… With a normal lab instrument with what we call a “globar” source, there’s no where near enough power to get much less than 10 microns per pixel. With the Synchrotron though, it’s got enough power to punch through the noise to get increased resolution. Hello zooxanthellae and your structural biochemistry.Comparison of "meh" laboratory information and "awesome" synchrotron spatial resolution

If it helps, think of the comparison between a candle and a flood-light and you’re probably getting close.

Seriously though, this place is fun 🙂

More to come later! Back to feeling like an actual scientist!

American “Coffee”

I arrived in Wisconsin on Friday after almost 24 hours either on a plane or in an airport. Not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

We head to a facility called the “Synchrotron Radiation Center” tomorrow for the beginning of a round of experiments for my thesis project. Hooray! I’ll be writing about that soon!

But in the meantime, I thought I’d provide some light entertainment for you all.

…Hopefully that works. It was much harder to upload than it should have been.

Also I’m totally a scientist.

I should probably also point out that I am a MASSIVE coffee snob and that not all of the coffee in America is like this. We’ve actually managed to find some nice-ish espresso down the road from our hotel. Winning.

Henceforth, I shall be known as the “Freezer-Key Lady”

Weird things are happening…

I found my keys in the freezer yesterday morning. I have nothing in the freezer except bread and a half-empty carton of sorbet. Why were they there? I have no idea…

I walked into a door. It would make things slightly less embarrassing if said door were one of those glass automatic ones but no – I’m talking solid, wooden, fire door.

I play video games in my down time and a few nights ago I realised I had been providing a full-on walkthrough commentary for an empty room. (“Leather gloves of wielding? I have no idea what you do but I will take you, I will wear you and I will love you.”)

The reason for my ever increasing hunch that my life is one big hallucination? I have been at my University for over three weeks… without a break.

I don’t think I’ve ever truly realised just how important rest actually is. Even though sometimes my weekend visits only last for a few hours, the knowledge that I’ve been there is enough. I haven’t been able to take a step back and concentrate on something else and it’s that mental break that’s important.

But sometimes taking that whole day away from things is just impossible. Sometimes things change on you last minute. Sometimes you get buried under mountains of unexpected paperwork and red tape. Sometimes you find yourself singing “just keep swimming” to an empty laboratory.

It’s at those moments that you start finding keys in weird places.

However I still have plans for this blog (and here’s the point of this post)! I really want to tell you all about why I’m slowly losing the plot and I really want to explain a bit of fun science-y stuff. I’ve also got an interview in the works with someone I find super interesting and I’m sure you will too.

Stay tuned! Once the craziness dies down, this blog will explode.

You know… metaphorically.