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Erin Smyth

I’m a 24-year-old biomedical engineering graduate undertaking the two-year Graduate Development Program at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights, Sydney. During the two years I will do three major rotations in different areas of the organisation. Currently I’m in my first rotation working as a researcher at the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering (ACNS).

This is a typical day in my life... 

6.30 AM  

My pre-work morning doesn’t consist of too much, after one or two snooze cycles of my alarm I’ll get out of bed and get straight into getting ready for work. This involves a stop by the kitchen where I’ll make my sandwich for lunch while my breakfast oats cook in the microwave, the timing of which I’ve mastered down to a tee. After I’ve eaten, I’ll grab my lunch, grab my keep-cup, and I'll aim to be out the door and in the car by 7:45.  

8.00 AM 

I arrive at work around 8:00, put my lunch in the fridge, and usually make a coffee in the tearoom before heading to my desk. I'll login and open my emails and calendar to check what meetings or events I have on, and then write up a very rough to do list/schedule to help me plan out my day. My email correspondence usually involves my supervisor and I planning upcoming experiments, ACNS staff communicating department meetings and events, or communicating with ANSTO staff in other departments to discuss their work. As we have two more rotations to undertake in this program, it is highly encouraged to dedicate time for networking and getting to know different areas of the organisation in order to choose future rotations that best align with our interests and goals.


8.30 AM 

By now I've attended to all administrative matters and I am ready to tackle some work. My role as a researcher at ACNS involves approaching a specific nuclear science related problem by studying it, gathering and analysing data through experimental work, and then after four or so months writing up and hopefully publishing a manuscript detailing the findings. The research problem my supervisor and I are currently tackling relates to the structural changes of lipids in model cell membrane systems when exposed to low dose radiation. Our research intends to gain a foundational knowledge of structural lipid molecular mechanisms through studying model membranes which we make in the lab. As I came from an engineering background, only having foundational biophysics knowledge from first year university, it’s been a steep learning curve wrapping my head around the theory involved in our research, however I’ve been able to translate a lot of soft skills as well as some hard skills which I gained from university and previous work experience which has helped me a lot.


I tend to spend my mornings doing reading and writing based tasks, the main one right now being studying the current literature surrounding our problem and writing up a literature review. I try to leave practical lab work for the afternoons as it’s always exciting and leaves something fun to look forward to later in the day. Given the nature of our experiments however, I’m usually left squeezing in my study-type work in between going to check on or adjusting experiments, some of which are performed on the neutron beam line instrument Platypus, which is amongst the many amazing world-class neutron and X-ray scattering instruments here at ACNS.

10.15 AM 

After a short morning tea break, I’ll continue working at my desk on smaller bite-sized tasks. These tasks might include collating and analysing experiment data using various software, updating lab journals with said data and notes, and writing up operation and procedure sheets for machines and processes I’ve been using. Alternatively, I may be doing outreach-based tasks like writing this day in the life. I will try to mix it up and go between tasks in 40 minute or so intervals, as I’m more productive that way.

12.00 PM

Now it’s time to head into the lab to do some practical work. We are conducting experiments on model lipid bilayers which we make in the lab, where we characterise them before and after exposure to radiation in the form of X-rays. The characterisation methods we use include X-ray diffraction, neutron reflectometry and electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS). Currently we’re performing EIS on tethered lipid bilayers, which can provide insight into the bilayer’s structural integrity. Today we aren’t exposing the bilayers to any radiation, just characterizing them. I am going to run some EIS after lunch, so I will head to the lab now and prepare the ethanol-lipid solutions as well as the phosphate buffer saline that it requires.


1.00 PM 

It’s now time for some lunch. I was hired along with nine other graduates who are each undertaking different rotations around the organisation. At least a few of us manage to catch up to hear what’s happening in each other’s rotations, share some wisdom and relatable experiences, as well as just hang out. After relocating to Sydney from Melbourne for this job, and not knowing anyone here, going into a Graduate Program where there’s like-minded people in similar positions and situations to me made adjusting to an unfamiliar city and job much less scary!


1.45 PM 

After having lunch, and washing my hands, I am back in the lab. I’m using the lipid solutions I prepared before lunch to conduct some EIS. Here’s a bit more insight into what is happening – I inject the ethanol-lipid solution into tiny wells which sit on top of a gold substrate coated with molecular tethers and wash it through with a buffer solution. This allows the lipid molecules to spontaneously self-assemble to form a sheet of bilayer tethered to the gold. The hardware I am using then applies small electrical pulses across the bilayer to measure its conductance, which can be used to assess the quality and stability of the bilayer. This work is in preparation for when we expose the bilayers to radiation and repeat the experiment to observe any changes induced by the radiation. As lipid bilayers are abundant in our cellular biology, at a larger-scale it is hoped that this research can provide a small piece of knowledge to help in the understanding of low dose radiations effects and potential therapeutic uses for the human body. This large-scale impact makes me excited and proud to come into work each day.


4.15 PM 

By now I will have wrapped up what I've been doing for the day and I’ll go and update my timesheet before logging off and heading home. Time is typically inputted as two sessions with a flexible lunch break in between, my start and finish times can vary to achieve a 7.5 hr workday depending on how long I decided to take for lunch. If there is work that requires me to run overtime, the extra time accumulates as flex which can be taken off another day or saved up to use as leave. It is fantastic how much flexibility is offered at ANSTO, including alternative work options such as working from home to allow you to do all the things you need to do in your personal life. Working at ANSTO makes maintaining a healthy work life balance highly achievable, which is a strongly advocated and an encouraged value within the organisation.

5.00 PM 

Post-work typically involves going to the gym and cooking dinner. I try and fill a weeknight or two with socialising and hobbies such as attending a dance class or going to see movies or shows I am interested in. However, occasionally, it may just be straight to the couch, Netflix, and take-out (usually sushi). I'll aim for lights out by 10:30 and might listen to a podcast or audiobook for a while to wind down, before falling asleep ready, refreshed, and excited to contribute to cutting edge science the next day!