Living in the Santa Cruz mountains, Quentin Williams spends a lot of time tending to projects on the Earth’s surface, but his professional interests lie thousands of kilometers below. His geosciences research led him to become a long-time user of the ALS, where he is serving as the UEC chair for 2024. Learn more about his work and hear his advice for other ALS users.
What is your day job?
I’m a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. I worry about the physical and chemical properties of materials in the interiors of Earth and other planets. A lot of issues are associated with that, from how water and carbon dioxide are cycled into the interior; to what do anomalies in seismic velocities mean that are observed at depth; to what the chemistry and evolutionary history of different regions of the deep Earth are.
What first sparked your interest in your field?
I grew up in the great state of Delaware, where every one of my friends’ parents was a chemical engineer for DuPont. So, I majored in chemistry. For better or worse, a course that fulfilled some requirement or other that happened to fit in my schedule was an earth sciences class. I took it as an undergrad and thought, “This is kind of interesting. I think I’ll take another.” And that was like potato chips. Very few people start their career saying, “I want to be a geologist or geophysicist.”
And now you’re guiding people on that path. What do you enjoy teaching?
This quarter, I’m teaching a graduate course called Great Papers in the Earth Sciences, which is oriented towards having students read classic papers in the field so they’re familiar with the limitations of research advances, and how new approaches were constructed originally. What makes a great paper—the person? Time? Technique? In different instances, each of those are clearly what drove a major advancement in the field.
That’s one of my favorite classes to teach. It’s an opportunity for students to reflect on how the field has gotten to its current position.
What led you to join the ALS Users’ Executive Committee?
Having measured physical properties since grad school, x-rays have been pivotal, especially since I look at a lot of samples at extreme conditions where high x-ray flux is critical. I’ve been a synchrotron user for quite a while, and I’ve seen an amazing progression in facilities and user service. When I first started using SSRL in the early 90s, the staff members basically said, “Here’s the hole in the wall that the x-rays come out of,” and, “Hope you made a reservation for some detector that works for you in our detector library.”
I’ve seen the evolution over time to fabulous user support, where folks who are not experienced synchrotron users can walk into a facility and get meaningful data in not days, but minutes or hours. That’s motivated my interest in the UEC. I’ve always been interested in how synchrotrons run, making sure that the user voice is loudly heard, and considerations about the future of synchrotrons. So, joining the UEC was a natural progression. Given the evolution that’s taken place in the last 20 years, I think the next decade is going to be spectacular.
Which beamlines do you use at the ALS?
Mostly 12.2.2, because that’s equipped to interrogate tiny samples held at high pressures and temperatures with x-rays, primarily using diffraction. The extreme conditions at Beamline 12.2.2 align almost perfectly with experiments designed to probe the interiors of the Earth and other planets.
My group has done some experiments at 11.3.1 and at 12.3.2 as well. I’m head of an Approved Program called Synchrotron Earth and Environmental Science (SEES), which will also use microtomography to image rocks as they fracture, fail, or deform. So, we’ll be hiring someone to work full time at Beamline 8.3.2.
What advice do you have for new users?
Communicate with the folks at the beamline! New synchrotron users are often surprised at how helpful the staff is. If you have something really timely that you want data on, but you’re not really sure how to get it, try to apply for Director’s Discretionary time. Or, if you’re in touch with the beamline scientist, there may be other mechanisms to get a little bit of data to help you out.
How are you involved in inclusion, diversity, equity, and accountability (IDEA) efforts?
In my home institution, we have a fairly large number of programs related to enhancing diversity. I’ve deployed them to help diversify my own group, including things like the Presidential Postdoctoral program at the University of California and UC-wide programs like the Cota-Robles diversity fellowships for grad students.
At the ALS, the doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships are extraordinarily valuable. Having someone deployed at the Advanced Light Source really enhances the ability of folks to engage with synchrotrons that might not otherwise find it straightforward to do so. These programs are producing the next generation of synchrotron scientists and users, and are pivotal to both maintain and expand and enhance the outreach of synchrotrons.
It’s also really important that we’ve made sure that the UEC has representation from the broad sub-disciplines, to enfranchise the different areas around the ring, especially with major ALS-U decisions being considered. Inna Vishik deserves a lot of credit for that.
[Note: In recognition of a lack of representation for the biosciences on the Users’ Executive Committee, a special election was held in accordance with UEC bylaws, and Grant Shoffner was selected to represent the biosciences community for a one year term.]
What do you do in your free time?
Living in the Santa Cruz mountains, there’s usually a lot of stuff to do. Right now, one of my sons and I are building an A-frame in the back. There’s always trees that fall down, so I am pretty good with a chainsaw. Last year, our orchard had probably 300 pounds of apples. I had to replace the plums because they aged out, and cherries are sporadic. We keep chickens, so it’s sort of standard mountain living.