World Metrology Day: A day in the life of a metrologist
World Metrology Day is an annual celebration of the signature of the Metre Convention on 20 May 1875 by representatives of seventeen nations. The Convention set the framework for global collaboration in the science of measurement and in its industrial, commercial and societal applications. To celebrate, we caught up with Jamie Mewburn-Crook, Assistant Research Scientist and former apprentice at the National Physical Laboratory, to find out what a day in the life of a metrologist is like.
Can you tell us about your role as a metrologist?
As a metrologist at NPL, I am a scientist who specialises in measuring things. I work in the Nuclear Metrology group, where we measure radioactive material to diagnose and treat cancer, nuclear power and the environment. I specialise in gamma ray spectrometry, where we use special crystals to detect packets of energy called gamma rays. These gamma rays sometimes occur when unstable atoms of an element (radionuclides) decay. Different radionuclides throw out different gamma-rays, giving them a unique fingerprint. We use these fingerprints to figure out what is there and with a bit more work, we can work out how much is there.
What does a typical day look like for you?
In the morning, I perform the quality checks of the group's gamma ray spectrometry detectors alongside setting off the day's measurements. I do this every week to monitor the health of our equipment. One job we use these detectors for is supporting doctors delivering radioactive drugs to diagnose and treat cancer. It is important that nuclear medicine clinicians know that they are injecting the correct amount of the drug into a patient; we at NPL help to provide that confidence.
I take my lunch break with various team members and we usually go for a walk. Our favourite spots include the water and woodland gardens in Bushy Park and our own gardens in Bushy House, where we also like to go to the beehives. These walks are perhaps my favourite hour of the day because it turns colleagues into friends. In hearing about their day, I get to see into and learn about all the different parts of the group.
After lunch, I refill the liquid nitrogen in the gamma ray spectrometry detectors. As semi-conductors, these detectors must be cooled down to 77 K (-196°C), which is over 12 times colder than eating ice cream. It constantly evaporates and needs refilling twice per week. If the detector ran out of liquid nitrogen, it would shut down and not be usable again for weeks.
Between 3-6.30pm, I have time to focus on projects. Currently, I am setting up a robotic detector and figuring out the best possible settings before any work is conducted. Once I have this robot working, it will give us the ability to continuously run measurements without waiting for staff to change the samples. I finish at 6:30pm each day to take advantage of NPL’s nine-day fortnight, which means I have every second Friday off work.
While this is close to a typical working day, what I love about my job is how every day is different.
Can you share anything else about your working week at NPL?
On Wednesdays, I spend an hour on Diversity and Inclusion work which is something I take particular pride in and feel very lucky to be one of the leads for neurodiversity. At NPL and as part of the wider scientific community, we believe the best approach to tackling the world’s biggest problems is diverse teams, different approaches to challenges and an environment which allows people to flourish. However, different brains need different things to function best.
For example, some individuals might struggle to concentrate with loud machinery in the background more than the average person. Someone with dyslexia (such as myself) can find reading lengthy documents such as scientific papers overwhelming. In these scenarios, I would support the individuals struggling by connecting them with NPL's resources to help them. In the first case, individuals could access the lab PC remotely and work in a quiet office and the second might include read-aloud software, so they don't have to read.
We also have a support group, a safe space for people to express frustrations and share ways of working. The main goal is to ensure that everyone feels included. Plus, we play football after work on Thursdays, and Fridays feature the 5K running race!
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in STEM?
A day in the life of someone working in metrology is a busy one filled with adventure and opportunity. Leaving school at 16 for an apprenticeship is the best decision I have ever made. If you are considering a STEM career, my advice is to do it; remember, the more you put in, the more you get out. There are so many options to explore and alternative routes into STEM including apprenticeships and science T Levels – both of which provide hands-on experience in the world of metrology.
Metrology underpins the measurements involved in everyday life, technology, engineering, medicine and many more. A career in STEM – metrology in particular – offers the chance to work in a variety of fields, from Earth Observation to Nuclear, and make a positive impact in the real world.