Interview: Seeing the (very bright) light in Hamburg

Biomedical engineer Kathryn Margery Spiers travelled from Australia to Germany to work at the world’s biggest synchrotron. She spoke to Gabriella Bernardi.

Kathryn Margery Spiers in her office at PETRA III in Hamburg.
Kathryn Margery Spiers in her office at PETRA III in Hamburg.
Gabriella Bernardi

Kathryn Margery Spiers is an Australian scientist at PETRA III, the high-brilliance third generation synchrotron radiation source at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, Germany. With a circumference of 2.3 kilometres, PETRA III is the biggest and most brilliant storage ring light source in the world. It boasts 19 beamlines available for users – among them Spiers herself.

Cosmos: Which was the path of your scientific training in Australia?

KMS: I had a very circuitous path into science. My first degree was in engineering. After working in industry for a while, I returned to university and completed a masters of biomedical engineering. The research component of this crossed over into solid state physics, utilising Mössbauer spectroscopy and related techniques to analyse iron oxide samples. From there, I went on to complete my PhD in physics, in a materials science related field.

Cosmos: How did you first become interested in synchrotron science?

KMS: I sort of fell into synchrotron science. After finishing my PhD, the opportunity arose for some short-term engineering contract work on the X-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron. Very quickly, I was completely hooked on the amazing science I could see happening around me, and later I was fortunate enough to be offered a research position focusing on X-ray fluorescence and absorption spectroscopy.

Cosmos: It’s a long way from Australia to Germany. How did you get involved with PETRA III?

KMS: While working on the XFM beamline in Australia, I worked with the CSIRO-Brookhaven-developed Maia detector system, which is the fastest X-ray fluorescence detector system in the world. There are currently only four of these in operation at synchrotrons around the world, including one at the P06 Hard X-ray Micro/Nanoprobe beamline here at PETRA III. So, I followed the technology!

Cosmos: Why is PETRA III so good for science?

KMS: The unique size and brilliance of the PETRA III synchrotron means that experiments can be performed here that can be done virtually nowhere else. DESY itself is a huge research centre, and our location in Hamburg puts us right in the middle of Europe, where we can easily interact with staff at other synchrotron facilities and form collaborations with research groups anywhere in Europe, as well as the rest of the world.

Cosmos: Tell us a little about your field of research.

KMS: The main thing I enjoy about working on a microprobe beamline is that I get to work across a really wide variety of research fields. I have been involved in experiments investigating sub micron sized structures within single cells, to those looking at details in full size paintings, and a huge variety of sample types and sized in between.

At the moment, one of my main collaborator groups, based across Australia, France and New Caledonia, is investigating “hyperaccumulator” plants. These are plants that have evolved to take up levels of metals, for example, nickel, zinc or arsenic, which would normally be toxic. We use the X-ray fluorescence microscopy technique to examine different parts of the plant to work out where it stores these metals and how it uses them.

Cosmos: What are your plans for the future?

KMS: For the immediate future, I intend to continue working with X-ray fluorescence microscopy at the P06 beamline. In addition, Hamburg offers many other opportunities within X-ray science. DESY is hoping to upgrade PETRA III to a diffraction limited storage ring, which will be called PETRA IV. It would be even brighter than the current planned upgrades for other similar facilities around the world. This will give us the ability to investigate samples in ways we currently cannot. Hamburg is also home to the world-leading European XFEL, another type of X-ray light source that is already producing great science after starting operation only last year.

Gabriella bernardi.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Gabriella Bernardi is a science journalist and author based in Turin, Italy. Her two most recent books are Giovanni Domenico Cassini: A Modern Astronomer in the 17th Century (Springer, 2017), and The Unforgotten Sisters: Female Astronomers and Scientists before Caroline Herschel (Springer, 2016).
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