ESRF gives students a springboard into the future


They are British, Finnish, French, Chinese and Italian. They are young and talented and have overcome fears and apprehensions to give their education an unforgettable boost. They have chosen the ESRF as a springboard to the future. They are just a few of the hundreds of students from the world over for whom the ESRF plays a significant role. Meet some of the young talents we welcomed this year.

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'I didn’t know anything about the ESRF before last year. I was amazed by the Experimental Hall. It’s huge and so full of high-tech instrumentation and equipment. How on earth did they build it? I’m amazed by how much people know and by all this technology. It’s an accumulation of the work of hundreds and hundreds of scientists, each contributing their part', says Pierre-Olivier Autran, student in materials engineering at the French engineering school Polytech Montpellier and currently on placement at the ESRF.  

Awesome? Indeed! Very often, a traineeship at the ESRF is the first experience of working abroad, and the decision to leave home, family and comfort zone doesn’t come without some initial anxiety.

The idea of integrating the ESRF can be dompting, as Yi Yao, a Chinese student on the Erasmus programme and affiliated to the University of Rennes, France, reveals: 'I never thought I’d be able to work here, because I believed that everyone was young, successful, knew all about physics and was obviously a genius. Now, I’ve seen that everyone is a genius, yes! But that if you have the right attitude and you really want to, there’s a place for you here.'


Marco Moretti and Yi Yao in front of the RIXS spectrometer on ESRF's ID20 beamline. ESRF/C. Argoud.

Aim high and let fly!

Yi has felt her confidence boosted by her placement at the ESRF. 'Before I thought all of this was out of reach for me. The notoriety and success of the ESRF made me feel it may be too big for me to fit in.' Now she feels more at home here, mainly due to the culture of openness and trust at the ESRF. 'Compared to China, here I have been given more trust over the equipment and participation in the experiment.'

Serena Pantalone, from the University di Parma in northern Italy, admits to having felt intimidated about joining a team where people 'knew a lot'. 'I felt like a small student at the beginning, but now I feel like a member of the team. My supervisor is fantastic and has been really helpful, everyone has.'


Student Serena Pantalone (left) with supervisors Gabriele Giachin and Montserrat Soler-Lopez inside one of the biology laboratories at the ESRF. ESRF/C. Argoud.

Serena says her English was scholastic before the start of the assignment. She had no school basics of French and remembers that, at first, it was very difficult to communicate outside the campus. 'I found that people didn’t want to speak English, but if I tried to speak French first then most people turned out to speak good English and were really helpful!'

Miika Rasola, a Finnish student in theoretical physics at the University of Helsinki, admits shyly that he was worried he wouldn’t be up to standard for the work given him. His fears turned out to be unfounded and now he feels more confident about his skills. 'My tutors knew exactly what to expect from me and didn’t put me in any difficulty. The people are very nice here, it’s not difficult to fit in.'

'I was quite scared at the idea of finding myself without anywhere to stay', says Pierre-Olivier, who studies in southern city of Montpellier. 'I got a lot of refusals by phone but, once I came to Grenoble, it was really very easy to find lodgings.'

A rich diversity of cultures and professions

Mirroring the image of the ESRF’s population and spectre of professions, trainees also originate from many different horizons and their topics of study are just as diverse.

Serena is in the last year of a Masters course in molecular biology. She is studying three proteins that are possibly implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Her mission is to make crystals of these proteins, then study them using the ESRF’s X-rays. In this way she aims to gain a better understanding of their structure and behaviour. 

For Serena, the six month placement in the macromolecular biology laboratory at the ESRF has given her a practical experience to complement a mainly theoretical approach at the University. 'Before, I was mainly studying with books as company. Now I’m interacting with a large group of biologists and have gained enough experience in the lab to be autonomous.'  She feels more open-minded than before and more confident in collaborating with non-biologists. 'I have worked with mathematicians and physicists here, something I would never have imagined doing before.'

Pierre-Olivier has the mission to upgrade the reconstruction process for tomographic applications in collaboration with a PhD student and researcher at neighbouring institute CEA (French Atomic Agency). 'This placement has given me the chance to acquire a solid base in computing. For me, the computing experience is an absolute necessity to complement the materials engineering.' Using iterative algorithms, Pierre-Olivier is developing a software program which would allow to reduce by 75% the number of projections, or photos, needed to reconstruct, with very high resolution, 3D tomographic images of samples under study. If feasible, the program would cut the data-taking time by 75%, enabling a current 5-hour manoeuvre to be completed in a little over 1 hour. 'Curiosity took over and it motivated me to go even further into the programming. I surprised myself by taking problem-solving to a much deeper level that I thought I could!'


Ennio Capria (right) with student, Pierre-Olivier Autran from Polytech Montpellier. ESRF/C. Argoud.


The multi-cultural environment can also be surprising as Pierre-Olivier found out:  'I imagined it would be very French here, but that’s not at all the case. It’s amazing how people just switch from one language to another without batting an eyelid. It’s great to hear English, then Spanish then Italian spoken almost all within the same phrase!'

Collaboration is also key in the world of research, whether among individuals of different nationalities and professions or between different research institutes. As Ennio Capria, engineer in charge of the Nanoelec Platform for Advanced Characterisation  in the ESRF’s Business Development Office, and Pierre-Olivier’s supervisor at the ESRF, explains: 'The work carried out by Pierre-Olivier will support the research programme established for an Innovation Lead Long Term Proposal (iLTP) resulting from a collaboration between the ESRF, STMicroelectronics and the CEA-LETI. The iLTP is focused on advanced characterisation of nanoelectronics devices, including statistical analyses, and involves several of the ESRF’s nanocharacterisation beamlines, in particular nanotomography operated on ID16A.'

Miika Rasola, one of the rare Finnish students, has designed electrochemical cells to investigate the chemical reactions on the interface between liquid and solid states on the high-energy beamline, ID31. The first cell has been designed and the parts ordered. Miika hopes they will arrive for him to assemble them before the summer shutdown in August.


Jakob Drnec, scientist on ESRF's ID31 beamline, with Miika Rasola, Finnish student from the University of Helsinki, look at an unusual set-up inside the beamline experimental hutch. ESRF/C. Argoud.

Every day is a good day

The ESRF is also host to technical apprentices. Ryan Evans and Ashley Churchman are just winding up a three-week placement as part of their apprenticeship at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council. 

 ‘I’ve not had a bad day here yet,’ says Ryan in a cheery accent from northern England. ‘My supervisor, John, is the first person to make me smile in the morning and he’s been really helpful.’

Ryan was given two main projects during the placement. First he had to manufacture a circuit to monitor the robot sample placer, then he built a test station for beam shutters to control their position and check the functioning of the electronics and pneumatics. The projects involved working directly on the beamlines and experimental set-ups, a novelty for Ryan. ‘Everything is very well organised and projects seem to go to plan. The hardest thing was understanding the French names of the components!’

It’s Ryan’s first experience of working and living abroad. With a rudimentary grasp of the language, he has particularly appreciated the very practical approach of the French lessons. ‘We had to buy a bus pass, order a meal in a restaurant or go shopping’, he explains. ‘It was good to get some guidance on the cultural differences too, to be sure not to offend anyone.’

‘I’ve really enjoyed it. Engineers and technicians work well together and there’s a lot of respect between colleagues for each other’s skills,’ says Ashley.


A taste of France and Europe for these UK apprentices. From left to right: supervisor Keith Baldock, apprentices Ashley Churchman and Ryan Evans, supervisor John Surr. ESRF/C. Argoud.

It’s Ashley’s third placement abroad through the STFC apprenticeship and he has already worked at CERN and ILL. His mission here is to design and assemble a security circuit (emergency stop framework) to house an X-ray camera on ESRF’s ID06 beamline. ‘My supervisor and colleagues here have put a lot of trust in me. They appreciate that I’ve done an apprenticeship and have not made me start from the basics for this placement.’

For Keith Baldock, ESRF senior technician and Ashley’s tutor, the benefits are not all one-sided and the ESRF reaps the rewards of its investment in training these young talents. He says, 'I found Ashley was of great benefit to the group during his short stay here. He was always polite and showed a lot of motivation and enthusiasm for the projects we worked on. He learns very quickly, and had some passion for learning the French language.'


Do you want a springboard to the future? Find out more about training opportunities at the  ESRF.

Text by Kirstin Colvin

Top image: ESRF scientist, Marco Moretti, with student, Yi Yao, inside the experimental hutch of ESRF's ID20 beamline. Credit: ESRF/C. Argoud