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!


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