Jay Nix started started the user program at Beamline 4.2.2 back in 2004, shortly after the Molecular Biology Consortium built the beamline. The macromolecular crystallography beamline is a little different than most at the ALS because it’s privately managed by a consortium of 10 Midwest universities that pooled their money together to build the beamline, and now continue to do so to maintain it. Nix serves about 50 labs, around 200 users, mostly remotely.
How did a group of Midwest universities end up here at the ALS?
Back around 1999 or 2000 when ALS started the superbend project, they needed people to buy into it. We were originally going to build at the Advanced Photon Source, but Howard Padmore recruited us and we realized it would be much better to do it here.
I started off just getting the user program and the interface up so that we could collect data with users who were coming here. In 2007 we added a remote robot mounter. We were the first beamline to offer remote capabilities; it just made sense given that most of our users were coming from the Midwest.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Pretty much every day I’m running samples for some of my users, and in between I’m doing upgrades or maintenance at the beamline. A schedule is nice to look at, but when you’re in the lab growing crystals it’s a matter of when they are ready, they’re ready. So I’ve gotten rid of schedules altogether. I work closely with my users and prioritize which samples need to run when. It’s great for high-throughput projects, like pharmaceutical research. I like to say we are Fed Ex limited; I’ve had situations where there’s been 24 hours between when users say they need beam time and when I get their samples up.
One thing I’ve been focusing on more in the last few years is outreach, working with high school students and community college and university students. I’ve had teachers who use the beamline to show students about crystallography.
What are the biggest challenges of your job?
Those 3 a.m. calls aren’t always fun, but I actually encourage my users to call me at any time of day if something doesn’t seem to be going right; I don’t want their samples to get damaged. Most things I can fix from home. Another challenge is always just trying to plan for the future, looking at what our users are going to need and how to fund that. I write grants, work on budgets a lot.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love working with my users. The work we do is interesting and important. We just had samples related to Zika virus. We just published a paper on HIV proteins. We’re working on things that directly affect the way people live. I’ve worked with a number of drug companies that have developed some very important treatments based on work at the ALS.
When you have time to relax, you…….?
I’m a big science fiction fan. I love Asimov, Bradbury, Terry Pratchett. I’ve been reading some amazing work by Neil Gaiman lately. And sometimes I just need a little Douglas Adams to get through my day.