TECHNICAL SKILLS REQUIRED
Required skills vary according to specialization, but
may include the following:
·;Problem-solving skills and an interest in solving
basic and applied research problems
·;Critical thinking and analytical skills to design
experiments, troubleshoot processes, and analyze
·;Written and oral communication skills to explain
findings and share results with scientists and
·;Computer skills, including familiarity with com-
puter modeling and data analysis
·;Skills in adapting and integrating computer soft-
ware to solve new categories of problems
·;Ability to visualize structures in three dimensions
·;Instrument maintenance, operation, and
techniques, including synchrotron X-ray diffraction and neutron
diffraction. Universities employ staff members to maintain and
operate their research laboratories and to train students to use
Crystallographers may develop instrumentation and software
for collecting, analyzing, and visualizing data and for translating
these data into crystal structure models. Some crystallographers
maintain and develop archival databases at industrial and academic institutions, as well as some nonprofit organizations and
Service laboratories hire diffraction technicians to prepare
and catalog samples, run the data collections, and prepare routine reports on the results. Technicians may also be called on to
perform routine instrument maintenance and simple repairs.
Forensics laboratories use crystallography to investigate cases
involving product adulteration or counterfeiting. They may identify minerals, metals, or other materials found at crime scenes.
They may also identify corrosion products and other residues
found at the site of an industrial accident to help verify the
events leading up to the accident.
Crystallographers generally work in laboratories. Because crystallography is a very computation-intensive specialization,
crystallographers must be able to use, and train others on,
proper data collection and analysis methods, software packages,
and computer visualization capabilities. They may be systems
administrators for the computing networks associated with their
Crystal-growing labs may have controlled-environment
devices, including glove boxes, furnaces, and cryogenic cham-
bers. These spaces must be kept free from contaminants and
unwanted sources of vibration or other factors that could dam-
age the crystals as they grow.
Crystallographers in academic environments often teach
courses in diffraction theory or provide individualized instruction
on using the instruments and software. At national laboratories,
crystallographers train visiting users, and they perform their own
research and maintain custom-designed instruments, many of
which are quite large.
Research crystallographers make presentations at conferences, and they may travel to specialized facilities to run
Is this career a good fit for you?
Although computer hardware and software have evolved to the
point where they perform much of the computation, a crystal-
lographer must understand the underlying principles to set up the
calculations properly and ensure that the results are meaningful
and properly interpreted. Computers can create 3D models of
crystal structures, but an ability to correlate these structures with
properties of the material requires an ability to visualize and inter-
pret these models. This requires patience and attention to detail.
Crystallographers must collaborate with experts in synthesis
and in other analytical techniques, and often, they must have
some degree of expertise across several disciplines. They may
be required to develop novel sample configurations, adapt their
instruments to new applications, or adapt and create new soft-
ware capabilities to handle unusual or difficult problems.
Crystallographers, especially technicians, may serve a support function for chemical synthesis labs. They may work in
commercial service labs or as a part of an in-house analytical
team. This requires them to understand the problem that their
customers or colleagues are trying to solve, and to devise a
data collection and analysis procedure that provides useful and
Nancy McGuire is a freelance writer based in Silver
Spring, MD. She has a Ph.D. in solid state chemistry and
began her career doing applied research.