Chemistry picture of the week: Australasian Crystallography School 2016

I have quickly gone from not having enough to having too much to talk about. The last two weeks have been busy and intense, and the upcoming six weeks are going to be all that, too. Please forgive me if I can’t find the time or energy to post properly for a while. I’ll do the best I can.

Crystallography school

Can you spot the network topology? Can you recognise the lecturer just from the top of his head? Answers at the bottom of the post!

I’m not sure if I’m more relieved or upset that this past week is now over. It’s definitely been the most intensely tiring week in my life since I was sick last year — but in a good way, where sleeping like a log actually picks you back up again. Yesterday was the last day of the Australasian Crystallography School. I have learnt so much this week, all the way from the basics of X-ray diffraction to the mathematical relationships between real and reciprocal space; from the history of crystallography to practical considerations in modelling, describing and publishing crystal structures.

I have planned for a long time to make an accessible introductory post to crystallography, and I thought that the week of the crystallography school would be perfect. I’d have the best context for it, I thought, and also have all the basic knowledge fresh in my mind. What I’m finding, though, is that my brain feels like it’s tearing at the seams. It’s like I have a squirming bag of facts knocking disjointedly around in my head.

Crystallography is really hard. Although a lot of the processes we use today are automated and hidden beneath the hood of shiny graphical user interfaces, understanding how to make a crystallographic model representative of your crystal and making sure it’s correct requires a lot of understanding of those inner workings. We need to understand the mathematics (to some extent), molecular and lattice symmetry and what the different patterns in diffraction images mean. We need to know about the experimental conditions that affect what we see and how they can make our jobs easier or more difficult. We have to be able to objectively model our structure based on the data instead of forcing it into the shape we want. There are so many things that can go wrong along the way, and we need to be able to troubleshoot.

Because a week is a short, short time for all of that, we were doing long days full of lectures and tutorials with breaks only for coffee (oh so much coffee) or food. I’ve literally filled a notebook with hastily scrawled notes as the lecturers were talking or the tutors were showing me how to do something — not to mention the additional information in lecture notes and the numerous fantastic recommendations for additional literature to give a more in-depth view on certain topics.

Realistically, to get the most out of this fantastic experience, I’m going to need to take a lot of time to digest all the information. That’s going to be a challenge in and of itself, since I think it’ll be important to start doing that as soon as possible — and there is still the looming confirmation, now only less than two weeks away. I’m going to need a lot of mental tenacity to keep with it, but I’m going to try.

What has delighted me the most, though, is that the school also reignited my passion for crystallography. I have lost that not a little in the past year, working on a system that is notoriously complicated — where working on it feels like bashing my head repeatedly at a brick wall. This school is a fantastic reminder of why I do what I do, even if the specific project I’m working on right now feels a bit soul-destroying.

I’d like to thank the Australian Synchrotron for hosting a great school, the school organising committee for nutting it all out and the lecturers and tutors for their respective great sessions. I’d also like to give a special mention to Dr Jack Clegg for the droves of good advice and his patience, and to Dr Alison Edwards also for her advice and fascinating perspectives on science and the scientific community. Prof. Simon Parsons deserves a mention for what were in my opinion the best lectures in the school.

Now for the answers to the questions above: the network has a diamond topology, and the top of the head belongs to Prof. Stuart Batten, my Honours supervisor from 2014.

You can reach me in the comments, by e-mail at and find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.