Where Next? Science!

So…where am I off to next? A tale of “there and back again”, let me tell you a short story. Imagine a young, hopeful Ph.D. student just finishing up his research, thinking about what kind of career he can carve out for himself combining science and developing software. There was a new light source being built, it was originally going to be in Daresbury, UK, not far from where he lived but they moved it down to the south. Still he saw an opening before it was commissioned, and they sent him the kindest rejection letter saying that wasn’t the best fit for me but to look out for a position that will be advertised in the coming months. He never saw that position, and instead followed his dream to America to live in another country for a few years as a postdoc combining experimental and computational methods.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I am talking about myself in the third person ;-) My career never seemed to fit into any of the well trodden paths, but I am not afraid to forge my own path. As I tried to figure out what the next chapter of my career would be it began to take on a little of that Hobbit’s tale of going “there and back again” as an opportunity at the NSLS-II presented itself. I was a little suspicious at first, it looked a lot like the dream job I had imagined all those years ago where I could combine my research experience in materials characterization with my passion for programming, data processing, visualization, open source, open science and more. Truth be told, life has rarely been easy so I was not at all surprised to see the US go into lockdown shortly after my onsite interview!

NSLS-II at Brookhaven National Laboratory

I will be joining the Data Acquisition, Management and Analysis (DAMA) group within the Experimental Controls and Data Acquisition Program at NSLS-II which is part of Brookhaven National Laboratory, as a Computational Scientist on Monday. I will be starting remotely at first, we are hoping to move down to the lab over the summer if the current situation allows it. After talking about the position, the goals of the group, and the broader mission it became clear that it would be harder to find a better fit. It also means that I can continue to work on projects that I am passionate about, like Avogadro and Tomviz. It will be strange focusing on just one facility after years working across multiple national labs, universities and industry. It is great to have the opportunity to work with them on open source software that benefits the scientific research enterprise and embodies the goals of open science I hold dear.

I will be looking at how we can build the best software frameworks to support specialization for specific instruments and beamlines. If you aren’t as geeky as me you may wonder what NSLS-II is, and at its core it is a national user facility that makes very focused, bright X-rays by accelerating electrons around a large ring. Each beamline has a specific set up, with different detectors, sample geometry, characterization modality from imaging through to diffraction and other stuff I will learn about soon. They usually cost over a billion dollars to build, with large investments in specialized characterization techniques. I am beyond excited to join the team and work closely with the different groups to develop better software for experimental characterization at the facility. This is the thing I used to sneak off and do when I should have been doing “real research”. Software is so important in modern scientific research at so many levels, and I am lucky to see that prioritized so that I can be paid to work on such big challenges.

A trip with the family to New York City just before the pandemic

On the personal side of life I had imagined a move to the west coast, but with the cost of living, increased distance from the UK, and my love of beaches the new location has many pluses. I should be able to live within half an hour of the lab, and probably less than twenty minutes from the beach! There is a train that will take me into the city in an hour and change, and there are multiple major airports where (if we ever) travel will be much more convenient, faster, cheaper. We can take day trips into the city, even meet friends for dinner. It is only three and a half to four hours away from where we currently live in Upstate New York, making the move significantly simpler in many ways too.

One of the small beaches on Long Island during a recent scouting trip

So there you have it, our next adventure. Lots to navigate as we attempt to sell our home, buy another, and move during a pandemic. Professionally and personally I am excited. When not working you will likely find me on the beach, riding my motorcycle, taking my new car out, or possibly my new aspirational hobby of sea kayaking. Stay safe out there, wish me luck on my first day on Monday. This weekend will be dedicated to a few days with no employment playing video games, trying to decide motorcycle or car and enjoying local craft beers. I am very excited to be getting closer to the scientific challenges in a major national facility, don’t tell my new boss though I am going to play it cool…

Stay safe out there, listen to the experts, and wear a mask to help slow the spread!

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