Graveyard shift


It’s twenty-five past three in the morning and I’m sitting in a tiny room in an airport-hanger sized hallway waiting as a stream of X-rays impacts a sample.

One of the many reasons I haven’t been posting recently (apart from my vast to-do list of other things) is that my research group has been preparing for our trip to the Australian Synchrotron. It’s my first visit and it’s been somewhat overwhelming. I’ve had to learn two new techniques from pretty much the ground up, and since time on the machines here (for those of you with any knowledge of this, we have the soft X-ray beamline for two shifts of 24 hours each to do XPS and NEXAFS is limited and valuable, we’ve been working literally around the clock.

This evening was mainly preparation for our second shift. Around 8pm we received news that the group currently using the beamline had finished all their samples - so we got an extra twelve hours. Anxious not to waste this, we sprang into action preparing samples and organising shifts to cover our new-found time. We were in the lab until 9pm, when our advisor called for a group dinner.

As a result of this, I’m now awake at 3am, at the start of the graveyard shift. Over the next six hours I’ll be monitoring the signal coming in via computer, shifting analysis locations, and generally keeping stuff on track.

Surprisingly enough, I’m pretty happy about the whole thing, despite having worked until 9pm tonight and having got about three hours of sleep total. While I’m sitting here waiting for data to come in, I’ve been thinking over why this is:

1. We have concrete short-term goals. By Sunday morning our time on the machine will be up. All our goals must be completed by this time. We know exactly what we need to do by then, and what success will look like. In the whole of my Ph.D. I’ve hardly ever had goals this close and clear-cut. This means at any one time there are only one or two things I could be doing and it’s easy to prioritise. There’s very little second guessing.

2. Working as a team. There are three of us from our group, working with two folks from another research group. There are enough of us that we can coordinate (thus why I’m only on from 3am through 9am and not the whole night) and we have clear-cut leaders with a plan. There are people with you in the lab when you’re working, and we’re all scheduled on in overlapping shifts so no one is ever left alone with the machine in the wee hours of the morning. There are people who share your burden, and this means that the graveyard shift stops being a chore and becomes more of a shared experience.

3. Novelty. We’ve only been here for a week. If this were the sort of thing we did regularly I’m sure I’d get tired of it soon enough. But right now it’s exciting new science for me, so any reluctance is overwhelmed by the fact that I get to do something I’ve never done before.

4. Music. This morning mainly consisted of sample preparation, which was tedious and monotonous. Thankfully, I’ve found that music (especially music with a good, driving beat) keeps me awake and focussed, so this morning I’ve been blasting myself with various tunes to keep my energy levels up.

This post has been assembled over the past five hours, in between various tasks, so it’s now eight in the morning. The sun is rising, and people are starting to appear around the beam hall. I’m looking forward to my shift ending in an hour, and then breakfast and bed. It’s topsy-turvy, but right now, it’s not too bad.