Chemists in the
Brian Toby, Ph.D.
SENIOR PHYSICIST/SECTION HEAD,
ARGONNE NATIONAL LABORATORY
PH.D., PHYSICAL CHEMISTRY,
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF
RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF
NEW JERSEY-NEW BRUNSWICK
Brian Toby has worked for eight years
at the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a
synchrotron-type particle accelerator at
Argonne National Laboratory that provides intense X-ray beams to a variety of
specialized instruments. His current job
title is Senior Physicist and Section Head
for Scientific Software. He assists scientists at the synchrotron in automating
their instruments, analyzing data, and
doing instrument support. He spends
much of his time developing a crystallographic data analysis software package,
GSAS-II, that can be used with a variety
of diffraction instruments and experimental setups. “I see my job as being a
resource,” he says.
Previously, as a group leader at
Argonne, he headed up efforts to build a
high-resolution powder diffractometer
that is now the APS’s most productive
instrument, in terms of publications generated using data from the facility. This
instrument is highly automated for high
sample throughput, so that scientists can
mail their samples to the lab and receive
their results online, after the data have
been reviewed for quality by an Argonne
staffer. Toby has done considerable work
on automating processes, which enables
scientists to spend more time productively, rather than doing repetitive tasks.
Toby learned crystallography as a
chemistry undergraduate and then
studied surface science in graduate
school, receiving his doctorate in physical chemistry in 1986. He landed his
first job after graduate school through
an on-campus recruiting program. Two
companies interviewed him, and one of
those companies offered him his choice
of jobs in two different locations. Since
then, he has worked in industry and
academia, before going into government laboratory work.
Please describe your
typical day on the job.
My typical day starts by clearing my
e-mail inbox. With that out of the way, I
then pick up a task I want to work on for
the day, which may be writing or editing
a paper, putting together a talk, analyzing some data, or adding a feature
to some data analysis code. Once in a
while I collect data, but I try to give the
pleasure of that to my collaborators.
At least a few times each year, I
go to universities and conferences
to give seminars, or to professional
workshops and give tutorials. I have a
website where I archive recordings of
my tutorials, but eventually, I would like
to replace that with a MOOC (massive
open online course) where students
can interact to help each other solve
can’t you live without?
I use the Beamline 11 BM High Resolution X-ray powder diffraction instrument at Argonne to collect data; it is the
best resource of its type in the United
States. For data analysis, I use the GSAS/
EXPGUI and GSAS-II diffraction software
packages and the Python programming
language. I use the Emacs text editor for
writing code, and EndNote for writing
papers. I love working on a Mac so that I
can alternate between typing Unix commands and the Mac GUI (graphical user
How many hours do you
work in a typical week?
I probably work 30–45 hours per week
in the office and 10–30 more at home.
Previously, I had a role with way too
many tasks — until I was replaced by
four people. For now, my work pace is
largely self-driven, but I always have
more things I want to do than energy
to get them done.
Is there anything else you
would like to mention
about your career?
I spent two stints in industrial labs, with
a non-tenure track university job in
between, before starting the first of my
two government research jobs. Prevailing wisdom is that does not happen. A
lot of people think that once you go into
industry, you never leave, but this was
not true in my case.
What is your work
I have a private office; I once turned
down a job because scientists were
housed in an “open office” environment. I think for a living, and distraction
would kill my productivity. I can get
quite a bit done with just my laptop
while traveling, but many tasks need a
really quiet place where I can concentrate. Multiple computer monitors are
also great to have.
What essential habit do you
have now that you wish
you’d started much earlier?
I wish that, when I was a student, it had
been possible to receive journal tables
of contents by e-mail. I read them for
many journals and follow up on a small
number of articles. Some I skim, others
I look at more carefully. It took me too
long to learn that time spent on calendar keeping (meetings, deadlines, etc.)
is never wasted.
What is your favorite ACS
The ACS journals and their free e-mail
contents/ASAP service. Also, I attended
and gave a presentation at an especially
well-organized symposium at the ACS
national meeting earlier this year. I
made some good new professional connections, and I got to speak with a number of old friends.