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Ring Leaders
Ringleader: Peter Nico Print


Peter Nico, recently appointed chair of the UEC, brings a varied user perspective to his new post: like many environmental science users, Nico has worked at a number of different ALS beamlines, from hard x-ray tomography to x-ray diffraction to STXM to infrared. It’s the combination of these multiple capabilities that he sees as one of the greatest assets the ALS has to offer users.

Nico’s research is focused on soil chemistry, specifically looking at carbon and how it’s stored in soil. He and his fellow researchers use the ALS to understand the chemistry of carbon in soil – understanding how it changes, what types of minerals it associates with, and what makes it more or less stable.

Nico has worked in the Earth Sciences division of the Berkeley Lab since 2005 and has served on the UEC for the past two years, which has given him time to develop an understanding of ALS user needs. He sees the near future as an important and interesting time to be representing users, as the ALS grapples with fiscal challenges and continues developing plans for an upgrade project.

“It’s a really interesting time to be chair of UEC,” says Nico. “We’re doing our best to represent users during these changing times at the ALS.”

The budgetary realities that the ALS faces are inevitably going to reduce options available to users, so Nico sees the role of representing their needs during this process as particularly important. Likewise, as the ALS plans and prepare for an upgrade, Nico wants to be sure users’ needs are kept at the forefront of the discussion.

“There’s this balance between being on the cutting edge and providing workhorse capabilities,” he says. “Not every beamline needs to be on the cutting edge; there is great science that can be done with average x-ray techniques and then there’s great science that can only be done with cutting-edge x-ray techniques and I think the ALS needs to serve both of those needs.”

In addition to representing users, Nico is particularly interested in developing new connections and dynamic communication streams between the UEC and the user community. He’s looking at various ways to streamline and encourage greater communication.

Ringleader: Marc Allaire Print

Marc Allaire, the newest member of the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology (BCSB) team, joined the ALS in October as beamline scientist for Sector 5, which consists of Beamlines 5.0.1, 5.0.2, and 5.0.3. Allaire came to the ALS from Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he had been responsible for macromolecular crystallography (MX) beamlines and the biological small-angle x-ray scattering (SAXS) program.

Allaire, who hails from the beautiful province of Québec originally, has been using synchrotrons in his own biochemistry research since 1992, when he worked on the viral 3C protease at the Photon Factory in Japan. Early in his career he had to deal with the effects of radiation damage to samples and developed and proposed a new model to explain the loss of diffraction from x-ray exposure to protein crystals. Over the years he led the field in the structure determination of challenging projects, including membrane protein complexes. “I became fascinated by structural biology and MX because it’s an interesting combination of subjects,” says Allaire. “You’re applying physics and math to biology to understand its chemistry.”

One of the major draws for Allaire in joining BCSB was its strong pharmaceutical user base. Using structural biology for drug discovery is a research area that’s of particular interest, in part because of the sheer quantity of structures being solved. “It’s challenging because the range of structures to solve is getting bigger and we need to work on new ways to speed up the process,” says Allaire.

Allaire spent a lot of time at Brookhaven developing process improvements for protein crystallography, and he hopes to apply some of what he learned at the ALS. “The ALS has really pioneered robotics capabilities, which is something that we can develop further to enhance productivity,” Allaire says.

He’s taking remote user access “on the road” these days, traveling to provide training sessions for users who want to access the robotics capabilities available at BCSB. “Training and education are part of why I really like this position,” says Allaire. “I get to go beyond just providing beamtime to users and share my vast experience as a crystallographer and behind-the-scene expertise as a beamline scientist.”

“The BCSB staff, led by Corie Ralston, is extremely young and dynamic and I’m really enjoying working in that kind of environment,” says Allaire. “And let’s not forget the stunning view of the San Francisco Bay.”

Ringleader: Musa Ahmed Print

In his 19 years at the ALS, senior scientist Musa Ahmed has seen chemistry grow from a somewhat obscure synchrotron science focus area to a cornerstone, award-winning ALS program. Ahmed was recently charged with leading the chemical sciences program for both ALS chemical dynamics beamlines, 9.0.1 and 11.0.2, which befits his long-standing enthusiasm and leadership in advancing chemistry research at the ALS.

“Our hallmark for the last 20 years has been fundamental chemical physics,” says Ahmed. “We do chemistry with a very big C, focusing on building up our knowledge base.”

The two chemical dynamics beamlines cover a broad range of science, including combustion, environmental chemistry, energy science, astrochemistry and astrophysics, fundamental chemical physics, and chemical dynamics. From biofuels to soot formation, the facilities and capabilities available at Beamlines 9.0.2 and 11.0.2 give scientists at molecular-level understanding of fundamental chemical processes. Ahmed notes that both the 2011 and 2012 David Shirley Awards for Outstanding Scientific Achievement at the ALS went to chemical dynamics beamline scientists, a testament to the excellence of the program.

Ahmed’s own research focus is on understanding and mapping the physical and chemical principles that govern complicated phenomena in nature. “My goal is to gain a molecular-level understanding of alternative carbon neutral energy sources and global climate change using imaging and biological mass spectrometry, atmospheric and environmental chemistry, and dynamics of combustion processes,” he says.

Ahmed’s scope reaches beyond the two beamlines in his latest endeavor, which is to create an umbrella group focused on chemistry at the ALS in general. He hopes it will be an opportunity for collaboration among beamline scientists and users from around the ring. Recent LDRD funding will also allow Ahmed to push the chemical science beamlines beyond the static regime into probe dynamics and more laser synchrotron experiments. Beamline 9.0.2  will soon gain some extra space, as BL 9.0.1 is moving, which will give Ahmed and his group greater flexibility in the layout of their many roll-out endstations.

“I’ve stayed at the ALS all this time because I feel I’ve been able to help create a unique research environment that other synchrotrons actually try to emulate, and the ALS has allowed this to evolve,” says Ahmed. “There’s also a lot of intellectual satisfaction in working with a beamline that produces some of the brightest vacuum ultraviolet photons in the world.”

October 2013 Print

Greta Toncheva and Robert Fairchild, Laser Safety Officers

“Safety is elemental” is the latest safety tagline for the ALS, and it also pretty much sums up the mission of laser safety officers Greta Toncheva and Robert Fairchild. Toncheva and Fairchild share the responsibility of ensuring laser safety lab-wide, with Toncheva responsible for overseeing laser safety operations at the ALS. Fairchild has been at the Lab for the past 16 years. Toncheva started last year after spending the past 10 years at Duke University in radiation hazard protection. The excellent safety record that the ALS holds speaks volumes to their efforts.

In addition to lasers, Toncheva supports ionizing radiation, with a heavy focus on supporting accelerators. Fairchild supports lasers and all nonionizing radiation, which means his work is spread throughout the Lab campus and other facilities, including JCAP and JGI. Their work at the Lab and the ALS involves a unique combination of highly technical knowledge, excellent communications skills, and multi-tasking finesse.

“Being on top of the game is important,” says Toncheva. “There’s a huge volume and diversity of lasers to keep track of.”

In addition to a diversity of lasers, Toncheva and Fairchild deal with a huge array of personnel, including users new to the ALS setting up their experiments.  Educating users about our safety culture and process can be challenging, but it’s one of the job duties that both Toncheva and Fairchild enjoy. They work closely with Doug Taube, ALS chemical safety specialist, to ensure that new experiments go through the correct safety channels and laser hazard evaluations are underway where necessary.

“We are required to constantly be learning while on the job, keeping up with advancing laser technology,” says Toncheva. “It’s challenging and I like it.”

September 2013 Print

Deborah Smith, ALS User Office Senior Administrative Supervisor


Deborah Smith, senior administrative supervisor in the ALS User Office, plans much of work life around the annual ALS User Meeting, which is fast approaching October 7-9. Smith and her team have been hard at work creating an amazing event for the 400-plus attendees that flock to the hill each year to attend workshops, listen to distinguished speakers, and take part in the active social program.

It’s a representation of what Smith says she loves most about her job: having a chance to interact with so many different people. The day after this year’s User Meeting activities end, Smith will be right back on track planning for next year. “I literally start booking conference rooms for the next one the day that the previous one ends,” she says.

Smith is quick to acknowledge that she’s not alone in pulling off the ALS’s biggest annual event – she credits her User Office staff first and foremost, as well as ALS Communications, the Users’ Executive Committee, and the warehouse crew as key to making her meeting planning successful. “We all come together and pull it off,” she says.

This year’s User Meeting highlights include 13 workshops that represent the great science that’s happening at the ALS, Smith says. The UEC collaborates with senior management to put the workshops together, while Smith and her staff handle the logistics. Smith envisions the User Meeting growing large enough that it warrants being held off-site, which would be a well-earned challenge for her and her team.

When she’s not working on the next User Meeting, Smith might be found managing ALS user statistics for the DOE Questionnaire annual report, providing user statistics for ALS staff, monitoring security and safety training for ALS users, acting as host for the majority of ALS users, verifying publications that the DOE uses to measure the ALS, and overseeing the User Office. “Publications are the major metric of how the DOE measures the ALS,” Smith says.

Since she started in the User Office in 2008, Deborah has seen customer service as her main focus, “We want the users to keep coming back and we feel like we can do that if we make the processes as easy as possible,” she says. “We try to get them down on the floor to do their magnificent science as quickly as possible.”



ALS User Office staff make the User Meeting happen each year: From left: Clyde Lewis, Deborah Smith, Giselle Jiles, Angel Hernandez.

August 2013 Print

Sue Bailey, User Services Group Leader

baileyAs head of ALS User Services for the past six years, my goal has been to make the ALS user experience as smooth and efficient  as possible. I am constantly looking for ways to improve the processes for users to apply for beam time, register, complete their training, and coordinate experiments. I am a primary liaison with the ALS Users’ Executive Committee (UEC) and we work together to ensure the success of the annual ALS User Meeting , which attracts more than 400 participants each year.

ALS User Services is currently transitioning from a dated software and database system to a new user portal, which will provide a much more interactive environment. The transition will be evolutionary, so users will notice many small changes over the next two years.  We have already implemented some components, including the RAPIDD Proposals system, which complements the existing General User Proposal process. RAPIDD is a flexible system that allows users to obtain relatively short beam time allowances to perform single experiments. It provides rapid access to structural biology, small molecule crystallography, SAXS/WAXS, and tomography facilities. It is also the formal mechanism for applying for Director’s discretionary beamtime and for submitting industry proposals. We will soon be rolling out an online user interface that will provide more intuitive ALS access. We are also working on software for an experiment tracking system, which will replace the current Experiment Safety Sheet.

Explaining and promoting science to the wider community is an essential role for all of us who work in science and at user facilities. This year I was fortunate to be elected to the National User Facility Organization (NUFO) steering committee and to help run a science exhibition to educate our elected representatives on the wide range of science and innovation happening at the ALS. I organized this year’s NUFO meeting, which was held at LBNL, and it provided an excellent opportunity for ALS staff to contribute to discussions of new outreach ideas and best practices across national facilities.

The ALS values user input and ideas and there are both formal and informal ways for users to make their voices heard. The UEC is a very important link between ALS management and users; I encourage users interested in learning more about and helping to determine how the ALS operates  to talk to current UEC members and consider running for election. The UEC will be looking for new members within the next few months. ALS also solicits input from users on our user satisfaction form—we like to hear what went well and where there is room for improvement. My door is always open and I encourage users to talk to me or other ALS staff so that we can help support their science.

Contact: Sue Bailey, 510-486-7727, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

July 2013 Print

Interim EHS Program Management

Since 2006, Jim Floyd has served as the Environment/Health/Safety (EHS) program manager for the ALS. July 8 he assumed a new position as director of the Lab's EHS Division. While the ALS is recruiting for a permanent replacement, two EHS Division staff will provide interim support.






In the area of accelerator and radiation safety, Jeff Bramble will be here approximately 50% to coordinate this important function. Jeff is an experienced health physicist (HP) with a very broad background, providing backup radiological control technician support here at the ALS and HP support at the 88” cyclotron. Among his duties will be assistance on:

  • Procedures
  • Interlock design, installation and documentation
  • Floor operator support
  • Shielding and ALARA studies
  • Incident corrective actions
  • Rad material RWA for users
  • Accelerator Safety Order implementation tasks
  • Work permits and shut-down work planning

Interim Division Safety Coordinator support will be provided, also at approximately 50% effort, by Andrew Peterson. Currently the assurance manager at EHS as well as the division liaison for ALS. Andrew served as the safety coordinator for the Life Sciences Division and is very familiar with our on-going staff safety functions. He’ll be providing assistance on:

  • JHA
  • Activity hazard documents (AHD) and other task-based authorizations
  • Self assessment
  • First-aid/Injury investigations
  • ALS representation to LBNL and DOE


User Safety will continue to receive strong support from Doug Taube, David Malone (pictured at left) and the rest of the team. You can find a list of safety contacts on our Safety Organization and Contact Information page.

June 2013 Print

Alastair MacDowell, Beamline Scientist, Experimental Systems Group


Alastair MacDowellBeamline scientist Alastair MacDowell has pioneered several hard x-ray science programs in his 17 years at the ALS. MacDowell began his career here with a directive to prove the viability of providing hard x-ray capabilities. Early in his tenure he did just that, working to establish the micro-XAS program at Beamline 10.3.2 and the x-ray microdiffraction program that ended up at Beamline 12.3.2, both of which are still in operation today.

MacDowell went on to develop many other ALS hard x-ray programs. He also proved that protein crystallography was tenable on bend-magnet beamlines, which lent vital support to the ALS superbend project and the five protein crystallography beamlines subsequently established at the ALS. MacDowell conducted the initial tomographic experiments on Beamline 7.3.3, establishing a program that moved to Beamline 8.3.2, and high-pressure x-ray diffraction experiments that led to an endstation at Beamline 12.2.2. He also implemented small-angle x-ray scattering (SAXS) at the ALS, which has remained at Beamline 7.3.3. Being involved in so many programs has its pros and cons, says MacDowell.

“If you build the equipment, then bring people in to use it, they come to you when something is broken,” he says.

MacDowell cites the “village” that makes up the ALS as key to establishing all of these programs. “They all require multiple people, from the techs to assemble, engineers to design, the ALS management and support to provide the environment, and the local scientists to provide the scientific motivation,” he says.

These days, MacDowell is in charge of the ALS tomography program at Beamline 8.3.2 and the high-pressure x-ray diffraction station at Beamline 12.2.2. At Beamline 8.3.2 MacDowell and ALS Postdoctoral Fellow Abdel Haboub are currently working on a Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program on coded-aperture detectors and an x-ray microtomographic hot cell that allows users to research the failure of materials at very high temperatures. MacDowell and his team built the instrumentation for the hot-cell technique, which is already enabling exciting research. Notably, Berkeley Lab senior materials scientist Rob Ritchie and his team have made headlines with the research they’ve conducted at Beamline 8.3.2 using the hot-cell facility to study the heat-resistant properties of advanced ceramic composites, which show promise as next-generation jet engine materials (see a video about their research).

The hot cell, which MacDowell calls “totally novel,” is currently not available at any other synchrotron facility. Researchers are using it for a variety of research topics, including

  • Gaining a better understanding of volcanoes by monitoring the cracking of magma,
  • Studying how concrete behaves at high temperatures in order to monitor the stability of burning buildings, and
  • NASA research on heat shields for space reentry vehicles.
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