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Being a physics technician at Diamond Light Source

Adrian Johnson helps to keep one of the UK’s main physics facilities working correctly.

Adrian Johnson

A couple of years ago at a wedding reception I was seated on a table with a few people I had never met before. As we were all chatting and getting to know one another, a young lady asked the inevitable question: “So, what do you do for a living?”

Over the years I’ve tried many different responses to that question, and I’ve never managed to pitch it right. I’ve learned that “I operate a particle accelerator” usually meets with a glazed expression and a subsequent discussion about the weather. So, this time I thought I’d try the much more generic “I’m a physicist”, in the hope that it would spark at least two more questions before we got onto how mild it was for that time of year.

I was, however, a little surprised by the direction the conversation went. “Oh, so what university did you attend?” was her response. “None,” I said, to which she proclaimed: “Well, if you haven’t got a degree you can’t possibly be a physicist.” I then spent 20 minutes or so explaining that I had worked in physics my entire working life – some 18 years at that point – what sort of work I was doing, and that I’m a member of the IOP, none of which persuaded her that I was, in fact, a physicist.

My career wasn’t a result of a burning desire to be a physicist: it was more out of a need to find work. I’d finished my A-levels and was lucky enough to get a job as an assistant scientific officer at AWE Aldermaston. I got an HNC in physics by attending college on day-release, which was a common occurrence at the time but is a path that seems to have died out. It didn’t take long to realise I enjoyed the practical side of physics and continued to work as an experimental physicist at AWE until 2006.

For the past nine years I have been working as a senior operations technician at Diamond, the UK’s synchrotron light source. The facility opened for users in 2007 with seven operational beamlines and we expect it to reach its full complement of 32 by 2018. Diamond uses three accelerators – a linac, a booster synchrotron and a storage ring – to accelerate and store 3GeV electrons. The synchrotron light emitted as the electrons pass through the magnetic fields generated by various devices is sent to the beamlines where scientists from many fields use it to study anything from jet-engine parts to vaccines. 

My main role at Diamond is operation of the three accelerator systems. It’s a 24/7 facility, and I’m a part of the shift crew that mans the master control room round the clock. The duties of an accelerator operator vary from checking and setting up sub-systems to establishing a stable, good-quality stored beam for use by the beamlines.  Once a stored beam has been established, the operator then has to monitor the machine and beam, looking for anything that could lead to a loss of beam stability or a loss of the beam entirely. Inevitably, problems do occur, and when they do it’s the duty operator that investigates and fixes the fault. Alongside those duties I also have my own projects, from creating software tools to improve the efficiency of operations to developing and deploying diagnostic and remote-monitoring techniques, such as remote-control thermal-imaging camera systems. 

I was encouraged to join the IOP while at AWE, and Diamond has continued to support my membership. When I heard the Institute was introducing new professional registers for technicians and scientists I was very interested and started to look into it straight away. For me, registration not only provides formal acknowledgment of the valuable experience and skills I have gained, it also further demonstrates to my managers that I am a fully committed and capable physics technician. I believe professional registration is such a good idea that I’m undergoing training to become an adviser to assist other technicians with their applications – which is handy, because it’s a formal training activity that counts towards my own professional development.