Women in science, or welcome to everyday life at the ESRF


Today, 11th February, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Today, like every other day at the ESRF, women participate in enabling the scientific progress that takes place in our institute. Meet Isabelle, Sandrine, Marie, Anne-Lise and Blanka, five of our women engineers.

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Today, their work is closely related to the Extremely Brilliant Source, or EBS, the world’s first high-energy 4th generation synchrotron under construction at the ESRF.

The inside of the storage ring tunnel is unrecognisable. In the short space of time since dismantling started in January, cables and cooling circuits have been disconnected and removed, and the girders and vacuum chambers lifted out. It’s a busy scene and the hundreds of different tasks involved in the dismantling is organised with almost military precision. The woman conducting the troops is Isabelle Leconte, a job she shares with colleague Pascal Renaud.

Isabelle was originally trained in chemical engineering before specialising in vacuum and cryogenic techniques. She joined the ESRF vacuum group in 1991. After 20 years developing her skills in this area, she moved to the operation group to coordinate the maintenance works during shutdown periods and follow-up machine operation and reliability. Since October last year, she has been assigned 100% to the dismantling of EBS.

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Isabelle Leconte (left) and Sandrine Rigotti inside the original storage ring tunnel. ©ESRF/S.Candé

“I’ve always worked in a predominantly masculine environment and it’s one that suits me well. I really enjoy the hands-on part of the job. It’s a great way of learning new skills on a daily basis and, for me, it’s been the best way to build solid work relations and team spirit.”

Further inside the tunnel, we reach one of the cells that houses the radio-frequency cavities. These large copper vessels boost the energy of the electrons at each turn in the storage ring. Sandrine Rigotti, from the ESRF’s Buildings and Infrastructure group, is working with external contractors to install a new waveguide network for the radio-frequency system.

Sandrine studied civil engineering in Grenoble and holds a Master’s in construction engineering and management. “It’s not a problem to be the only woman in the team. We discuss, the work gets done, simply and respectfully.”

Adjacent to the storage ring tunnel, the Chartreuse experimental hall is currently housing some of the girders, mounted with the different magnets, vacuum chambers and diagnostics devices that make up EBS.

Marie Spitoni joined the ESRF in August 2018 after a PhD thesis on fluvial geomorphology. As a metrology engineer specialising in topography and geomatics, she spent the last couple of years studying the water flow, channel shape and underlying earth of French rivers to assess their state of health. So how does her experience relate to her new position as metrology engineer at the ESRF?  Marie is involved in the ultra-precise alignment of EBS, which means each element has to be aligned to within 50 µm of each other, over a distance of almost 1 km. Her work also involves anticipating future deformations of the storage ring linked to the geological environment of the ESRF and setting up protocols to counter eventual alignment issues.

“The ESRF brings together all the aspects that I sought when entering the field of metrology: plenty of field work, being part of a team and a wide scope of tasks.  I also like having to work with the constraint of extremely low tolerances on our measurements and at the ESRF everything is very precision-sensitive.”

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Marie Spitoni prepares the alignment tools on the pre-mounted girders for EBS. ©ESRF/S. Candé

Anne-Lise Buisson on ID29, one of the four new flagship beamlines of EBS. ©ESRF/S. Candé

In parallel to the construction and installation of EBS, the ESRF is also building four new flagship beamlines designed to exploit the enhanced properties of the source, which will complement the ESRF’s already extensive beamline portfolio.

Anne-Lise Buisson is currently working on two mechanical engineering projects for BM18 and ID29, two of the new beamlines that will be built as part of the facility upgrade related to EBS. Both projects involve the motorisation and movement of either mirrors or lenses used to focus the light beam.

“The two projects are different in that one beamline studies very small samples of around 0.5µm, while on the other we are looking at large samples, fossils for example, that can reach sizes up to about 2 metres. There are many constraints to take into consideration, for example the high precision to which the beam must be focussed, the ultra-high vacuum environment, the heating of the motorised elements, and also the confined space available in which to fit the device. It makes for challenging and mind-stretching projects!”

On top of the four new beamlines being built for EBS, the ESRF is pursuing its continuous improvement of the facility by refurbishing existing beamlines to prepare them to better exploit the new performances of the source.


Blanka Detlefs inside the experimental hutch of ID26. ©ESRF/S. Candé

Blanka Detlefs trained as a scientist before turning towards beamline instrumentation as Beamline Operations Manager on ID26 and ID20. During operation, she spends most of her time working with both scientists and technical staff, making sure the experiments work and acting as local contact for the different user groups. With the 20-month shutdown, her tasks have changed.

“Since the shutdown, I’ve had more time to work on instrumentation, and to prepare a bigger beamline project: the refurbishment of the ID26 optics for operation with EBS. We will be installing a new monochromator and we need to think through the different options of how to integrate it into the existing optics while improving the performances of the beamline.”

Text by Kirstin Colvin


Top image: Marie Spitoni, metrology engineer, prepares the alignment of the girders of EBS. ©ESRF/S. Candé