Chemists in the Real World

Brian Toby



Brian Toby, Senior Physicist/Section Head

Argonne National Laboratory
Ph.D., Physical Chemistry


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.

Over his career he has coauthored more than 130 papers, which have been cited more than 6000 times. More than a third of these citations have gone to one single-author paper, which describes a crystallography computer program he wrote called EXPGUI

What's a typical day on the job like?

My typical day starts by clearing my e-mail inbox. I usually have a few crystallography questions from students to answer, as well as attending to business for the U.S. National Committee for Crystallography, where I am chair. Students contact me for assistance with using GSAS-II, the software package I'm helping to develop, or some of my older software. Several professors refer students to me as a resource to help them solve nonstandard problems or set up customized applications for the software. On bad days, e-mail can take a large fraction of the day. Sometimes, e-mails contain "fires to put out" that take even longer, such as a reminder for an overdue referee report or to follow up on reviews where I am a co-editor.

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 problems.

Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?

I use the 11-BM X-ray powder diffraction instrument at Argonne to collect data; it is the best resource of its type in the U.S. 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 interface) features.

Describe your work environment.

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.

Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?

I probably work 30–45 hours/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.

What do you like most about your job?  

My work probably brings me the greatest satisfaction of anything that I do with my time. Not that I don't enjoy time with my spouse, kids, or seeing seeds grow into something I can eat, but I feel that in my work I learn new things and create tools that the whole world uses. I also like that my work is a comfortable one-hour bike ride from home, so I can commute that way for more than 1,000 miles/year.

What is your best productivity trick?

Keep a couple of balls (tasks) in the air and switch off between them. It keeps me from getting bored or stuck.

What's the best career advice you've received?

Some of the most memorable career advice I have gotten turned out to be the opposite of where I have gone. I was told that "There are no jobs in crystallography" and "Software work is the death of a scientific career." I have found that learning how to program is a useful skill that can be applied to many different things.

I know all too many well-trained scientists who are not able to use the skills they trained in, and feel blessed that — more than once — I have been in the right place at the right time. However, I don’t think I would be as good at work that I did not like so much. I think one should study something one likes learning as Plan A, but understand that it is not always where life takes you.

I have benefited greatly from a large number of scientific and professional mentors, who have given me great advice, and pointed out opportunities to me. One piece of advice that I did follow was that during an economic downturn, if your employer is facing an uncertain future (and I have experienced this in industry, academia and government), don't get sidetracked worrying about your job or spend time bemoaning fate with your co-workers. Go into your office, shut the door, and work all day. Get as much work done as you can in the time that you have. If nothing else, this will add to the accomplishments that you can use to get your next job.

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 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 resource?

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.