Roland Koch first became fascinated with synchrotron work at BESSY in Germany. He has been at the ALS ever since he finished his PhD and is happy to teach others everything from getting more meaningful data to flying a plane.
Congratulations on your new role at the ALS. What do you work on?
I’ve been building and commissioning the coherent scattering beamline at COSMIC for the last two years. It focuses on the dynamics of magnetic materials. I’ll be moving over to PEEM (photoemission electron microscope), and I will still concentrate on magnetism, but it’s a full-field microscope, so we can look at individual magnets and the spin orientation. This is useful for hard drives, when you want to increase data storage capabilities. We can look at how spins interact and form different quasi-particles like skyrmions, which are magnetic vortexes.
How did you get into this work?
I started synchrotron work at the beginning of my PhD in Germany at BESSY. I have always liked this mixture of instrumentation and science that you can only do at the synchrotron, because the light source is not available in any other setting where you can freely choose what light wavelength or energy that you want to use. And that typically attracts a lot of people who have very different ideas about science and about the experiments in one place. At the ALS, we have infrared beamlines all the way to hard X-rays, and that’s something that always fascinated me—to have the communication with those people and get insights in a lot of different scientific areas.
After my PhD, I did a short postdoc with my advisor and applied for a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which funded me for two years to come to the Advanced Light Source. It’s an amazing institution, because they send Germans out to everywhere in the world, but at the same time, there are internships in Germany. Students from all over the world can apply through the DAAD, and they’ll pay for the students to go live in Germany for a couple of months. I don’t know how many people know about this.
At the ALS, I joined Eli Rotenberg’s group and commissioned the nanoARPES system to work on two-dimensional materials. If you have a single layer of graphene, the electrons have a linear mass and energy relationship, but if you put another graphene layer on top, you have bilayer graphene, and the electronic band structure of that is completely different.
Can you share a bit about your coordination work with the other light sources?
I’m working with the other light sources of the United States. The idea is that users won’t have to learn a completely new system every time they go from one light source to another. We want to have similar systems for retrieving the data, sample holders on certain beamlines, documentation for the samples, all these things that will make it easier for users to access the facilities. The molecular crystallography people are a little bit ahead, but the health crisis triggered this for a lot of the other beamlines as well.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a pilot. I always dreamed about flying, but I never thought it was achievable or easy. In the Bay Area, a friend introduced me to a flying club at the Oakland airport. I saw that I could do this, and it’s my favorite pastime. Distances in the United States are sometimes pretty far, but if you can fly your own plane, a lot of things become very near. So, a weekend trip to Death Valley is totally possible because you fly about four hours. There are a lot of airports in the United States in remote locations, so you can just land there, take your tent out of the baggage compartment, and go backpacking. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, Seattle, northern California, and southern Oregon.
I’m taking courses now to become a flight instructor. The training is about the fundamentals of instruction and is actually mostly psychology—the modes of learning, how to overcome obstacles when learning. I love flying, and I do like teaching people. We do that at the beamlines on a regular basis, showing users how to operate the equipment and how to analyze the data. If you understand the mechanics, you can get ideas for different kinds of experiments. If you know more about how the beamline works, you can take a lot more out of this data.