ESRF: melting pot for international students


Every year the ESRF welcomes around 100 students from all over the world. From high-school level to post-doctoral fellows, these future professionals have chosen the ESRF to gain that practical experience so valued on a CV. Meet some of our students and find out how their experience at the ESRF is shaping their future.

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Emily Galvin, Katie Mordecai and William Spencer are in various stages of a 4-year technical apprenticeship with the STFC in the UK. They have spent three weeks in the ESRF mechanical workshop on a shared project, machining prototype parts from drawings using a computer numeric tool (CNC). The parts, which have been designed in-house, will be used on a slit positioning assembly through which the light beam is concentrated on the beamline. 

“The software I’m using is completely new to me and of course it’s all in French, so I’m learning fast!”, says Katie. “These CNC machines are really expensive and I’ve never been allowed to operate one before. My supervisor has been great in showing us how it works and trusting us to use it.”

The project was chosen to show the apprentices a wide range of skills. “Our supervisor picked us a project with four varied pieces so we could do manual machining, milling and work on the CNC,” says Emily.

William is keen to highlight the social aspect of the ESRF as an unexpected strong point in the experience. “Here, people take time to talk together and exchange views and the breaks are important parts of the day. We’ve been working with people from Belgium, Germany, France, England and it seems that everyone comes from somewhere else.”  


UK machining apprentices with their supervisor (L-R): William Spencer, Keith Baldock (ESRF), Emily Galvin and Katie Mordecai. ©ESRF/C. Argoud

Bethany Cates, 20, is in her 3rd year of a physics degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA. She enjoys seeing concrete examples of interdisciplinary research taking place on the EPN campus. She says: “I went to a talk in one of the neighbouring institutes on the subject of biomaterials. They had synthesised materials in their lab, then imaged them at the ESRF. It’s really cool that people from so many different fields are working on problems together.”

Bethany had already been on an exchange to France during high school, but she appreciates the longer-term immersion that this placement has provided. “One great thing about the ESRF is the exposure you get to a whole bunch of research so different from what you’re currently working on. Being here has shown me concretely what other options are available with a physics degree.”

Her task is mainly coding and integrating on a software programme called PyMca that was developed at the ESRF to process data from X-ray fluorescence experiments.


In the control cabin of ID21, Bethany Cates (centre) with supervisors Armando Solé (right) and Wout de Nolf (left). ©ESRF: K. Colvin

Janne Pusa is about to start the 2nd year of a Masters in physics and engineering at the Aalto University in Finland. Based on ID31, he's assisting the scientists there in a fuel cell experiment, probing new sources of renewable energy. "I was involved in the experiment set-up, then during the experiment and now we are analysing the data”, says Janne, who was not entirely sure whether he’d spend all summer making coffee!

It's Janne's first work experience outside Finland and in a large research infrastructure. “When I compare the equipment here with that at the university, it’s on a totally different scale. It’s great to see what science looks like when you have the means to take it to this level." Says Janne.

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Katja Kohopaa and Janne Pusa inside the experimental hutch of ID31. ©ESRF/C. Argoud

For Katja Kohopaa, 21, a Bachelors student in engineering physics at the Aalto University in Finland, one of the highlights of working at the ESRF is that she can work on many different things and she gets to use the X-rays.  “I’m studying materials that could be used in lithium batteries. It’s great because everything is on site here: we can make the samples in the lab, observe them using the X-rays and then analyse the data to see whether the preparation of the samples was successful.”

If she had to give advice to future students, she’d tell them to just keep an open mind and see what comes your way. “On the first day here I learned I was going to work with chemistry. That was a surprise because I study physics! It’s been really great though: I’ve been doing things for the first time and I’m lucky that my supervisor is so nice and that I can ask all the questions I need to, she’ll give me an answer. ”

Our students write home or call their parents: watch the video to find out what they have to say about the ESRF. Video by Maria Sanchez-Duran, script by Kirstin Colvin.

Anurag Kawde is Indian. He is spending the last two years of his thesis at the ESRF, following two years of study at Umea University in Sweden.

 “My thesis concerns artificial photosynthesis. We’ve been developing an artificial leaf that splits water into Hydrogen and Oxygen when the device is placed in the sun (solar energy).” This research could give rise to very practical applications as a renewable energy source and Anurag is seeking to improve the design of this device to produce more efficient photo catalysts in the future.

“To study the electronic structure of the device and design an efficient water splitting catalyst, we need to use the high-energy X-rays at ID26 and the XAS and Emission Spectroscopy techniques available there. That’s one of the best parts of being at the ESRF: I can continue both sides of my research here. I can synthesise and characterise the materials at the PSCM (note: Partnership for Soft Condensed Matter) then study the material on the beamline.”

For the future, Anurag wants to focus on taking this project to the next level and build a device that is commercially viable. “I’m looking to stay in research in this field”, he says. “I’m hooked!”

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Aurag Kawde on ID26. ©ESRF/C. Argoud

Mohammed Irar on ID30B, FAME. ©ESRF/C. Argoud

Mohammed Irar is 28 and from Ramallah in Palestine. He’s just finishing a PhD in materials science at Grenoble Alpes University (UGA) in collaboration with the Néel Institute, CNRS. He uses X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) to study the phase-separation and ion-pairing for supercritical fluids using a 5 crystal analyser spectrometer (CAS), working on the French CRG beamline, FAME onBM30B. “The network of contacts that I’ve developed here is extremely important and it will be helpful for the future. Everyone is very friendly and they’ve helped me not just with the science but also with the social side of integrating into France and the ESRF.”

Justine Jacob  arrived at the ESRF almost by chance and feels very lucky to be here. She is just finishing a 4-month placement as part of a Masters in Purchasing and Logistics at IAE Chambéry. She  will stay at the ESRF for the 2nd year of her Masters, alternating between the practical aspects in the office and the theory back at school.

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Justine Jacob (middle) with members of the ESRF Purchasing group. ©ESRF/C. Argoud

“My experience at the ESRF has confirmed that I’ve found my path. I love this job and it’s very satisfying to be in the middle of the purchasing process to see what comes before and how it ends. The culture at the ESRF is very different to what I’ve seen elsewhere. It opens your mind to work with people with such different backgrounds: working methods are different, interaction is different. I love learning and here I’m forever learning something new.” Says Justine.

Richi Kumar, 26, is from Bhopal in India. She is in the 1st year of a PhD and studies the high temperature deformation of light alloys. She uses in-situ X-ray nano tomography on ID16B to study creep cavity formations in the alloys, trying to understand where they initiate and how they grow.

“I'm amazed at the piece of engineering that the ESRF is. So many devices have to work very precisely at the same time for an experiment to go well. And it all does! Because beamtime is precious, there is always a plan and a backup plan to make things work."

Benjamin Miller is 21 and has dual French and American citizenship. The 3-month placement at the ESRF is part of the first year in a Masters in nanoscience and nanotechnologies at the Grenoble INP Phelma. Within the ESRF’s scientific programming group, Benjamin’s task is to convert some obsolete software into a different programming language. The software calculates the size, divergence and intensity of the X-ray beam when it goes through an optical system. It is used by the scientists on the beamlines to know the parameters of the photon beam when it hits the sample.

“I like solving problems in general. Here it’s great to see the end application and know what my programming is going to be used for.”

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Benjamin Miller (left) with supervisor Manuel Sanchez del Rio, in front of the ESRF central building. ©ESRF/C. Argoud

Michael Obermann (right) with supervisor, Boaz Nash, inside the ESRF storage ring tunnel. ©ESRF/K. Colvin

For his first professional experience outside Austria, Michael Obermann, 26, is trying to understand the intricacies of accelerator physics and beam dynamics by working on software processes that control the accelerators.  In the 1st year of a Masters in Physics at the Technical University in Vienna, Michael was selected for a two-month placement at the ESRF.  “On my 2nd day here, I was able to participate in an experiment on the accelerators. It was really exciting to be part of a team inside the control room with large screens and monitors all over the walls and desks. It was interesting to see the interaction between the accelerators and the beamlines, and how a change in the properties and characteristics of the electron beam would affect the beamlines.”

With professional placements such an essential component to becoming qualified today, the ESRF can boast unanimous enthusiasm from the many students that have spent anything from a few weeks to a few years inside this most unique environment. Find out more about training opportunities at the ESRF. 

Text by Kirstin Colvin

Top image: Julie Villanova, ESRF scientist, with PhD student Richi Kumar inside the experimental hutch of ID16B. ¬©ESRF/C. Argoud