A day in the life: the engineer who embroiders experiments


Ever wondered what an ESRF scientist’s or engineer’s life looks like? Are they all day working on their next Eureka moment or do they spend long hours in front of the computer? Do they have a sense of fulfilment? And does being a woman make any difference? The International Women’s Day is celebrated this week, so we have followed four women on their day-to-day routine to give a flavour of their lives.

  • Share

Early morning

“Look at it, isn’t this beautiful?”, asks Elodie Boller, in the control hutch of the beamline ID19. She is doing some feasibility tests on silicium alloys sent to her by the University of Marseille in view of an experiment programmed for April. She beams when the screen shows different grades of gray on the sample. “I bet they have a paper in here”, she says referring to the data. Elodie, engineer on ID19 for almost 20 years, still gets excited about getting good results.

It is Monday morning and the beamline is extremely quiet. It is the calm after the storm: users have been working frenetically over the weekend, trying to get as much data as possible, until 8am, when Elodie arrived.  The users in the weekend had a special set-up, which Elodie is using for her samples. But the next experiment is looming, and Elodie needs to help users change the configuration of the set-up. 


Elodie comes to work by bike, after dropping the kids off at school (they all cycle).


Barbara Fayard, the CEO of the company Novitom, arrives at the beamline with a team of British industrial clients. They are studying additives for petrol to improve  car exhaust emissions. She knows Elodie from a long time ago and they discuss the preparation of the next experiment. Elodie shows her some very challenging samples that she has been asked to test for some other users, and they both chuckle: “People think I am Santa Claus…”, says Elodie.


“The experiment  will work, we just don’t know at what time”


Just after that, Alexander Rack, scientist in charge (of the beamline), appears on the beamline. He discusses with Elodie about the upcoming set-up. During the next couple of hours they will be helping the users to set up their experiment. Elodie is an expert on the technical aspect of the beamline. She works mostly with Rack and Paul Tafforeau, a palaeontologist, and claims to complement each other really well: “Alexander brings order and logic and he is developing ultra-fast acquisition imaging techniques for the EBS project, I am the technical person and Paul does all the blue-sky thinking”. With this dream team, plus the other scientists and post-docs on the beamline, they have been working hard these last months on the design of a new beamline for the EBS upgrade.

2017-02-20_BOLLER E_ID19-15.jpg (Elodie BOLLER)

Elodie Boller with Alexander Rack on the beamline.

In 2 years’ time, the ESRF will close down for 18 months. Elodie has pondered about what to do during this time. She has had in mind for a while the possibility of doing a PhD, but the project of the new beamline is way more attractive. “We´ll see what the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) decides about the project, Paul is presenting it today, but I´d love to build it. It would be much more fun than doing a PhD”.


At midday she has lunch with other scientists in neighbouring beamlines. They eat outside when the weather is good and chat about science and life in general. “I have a life after the ESRF”, she says. She is a representative parent in the school of her three kids, she loves travelling, cooking and embroidering and she keeps six chickens in her garden. She is also into DIY and likes to do manual work, that is why she enjoys her work on the beamline.


The experiment seems to be in full swing, so Elodie catches up with her email. All of a sudden, she smiles. Alexander Rack has sent her a photo of Paul presenting the new beamline to the SAC live, with the subject: “The show is on”. “Fingers crossed”, she says.

Her office, which she shares with Tafforeau, is full. Full of papers, samples, books, hard disks to record data. On the wall, mementos of things she particularly cares for: a tomograph of a piece of chalk from a particularly complicated experiment, the EBS masterplan, family photos, children’s drawings, the operation calendar of the ESRF, the Diploma for taking the Hercules course, already several years ago. And several post-its on the computer screen from friends commenting on her creative way of putting order in her office.

coverelodie.jpg (Elodie BOLLER)

Barbara Fayard (left), CEO of Novitom, works with Elodie Boller in the Control Hutch of ID19.

The telephone rings. The team on the beamline has a  problem. Elodie recalls her motto: “The experiment will work, but we don’t know at what time”. She claims, in joking, that the technical people (often men) are more helpful with her because she is a woman. She heads to the beamline, but the problem has been solved in between. Elodie says they can “do an optimisation” so that the experiment, which runs until 8am, is a success. This is what she likes, she says, “to provide service, otherwise I couldn´t do this job”. And in doing that, she has managed to forge friendship with regular users. Industrial clients often bring her small gifts to thank her for her dedication and they are all exhibited in her office. She, on the other hand, once embroidered a towel with the Unilever logo for a long-term client from that company.

2017-02-20_BOLLER E_ID19-29.jpg (Elodie BOLLER)

Does being a woman make any difference in the ESRF? She doesn’t think so. “It is very masculine, because it is a research institute and they are often like this, but I don’t feel that I am treated any differently from my male colleagues”.


Around 6.30pm, she heads back home. It has been a long day and she hopes that the experiment will run smoothly: “Some users call in the middle of the night with a problem, and that is no fun. It is the only negative side of the job.  At least these days I can access the beamline remotely through my computer, which is good.”.

Back home, she and her partner, who also works at the ESRF, work as a team and share tasks regarding cooking and taking care of the kids. She does school drop offs in the morning, he does pick-ups and cooking in the evenings.

Once everyone is asleep, and with a dim light in the kitchen, she embroiders, her passion, until the wee hours. After a hectic day on the beamline, she loves sewing because “it is a time where I don’t really think about anything”, she says. 


Text and photos by Montserrat Capellas Espuny