Saturday, August 11, 2018

Looking back at my ASI years

It has been two and a half years since I stopped working at Australian Scientific Instruments. I haven’t written or said much about it since then. But I probably should. The best way to do that is probably to focus on the positives. Here are several benefits that I gained as a result of working at ASI for almost six and a half years:


Prior to working at ASI, I had never been to Asia, aside from airport stopovers. I managed to reach all the other inhabited continents during my PhD back in the late 90’s, but somehow I had managed to miss the big one.
And Asia is a big deal. More than half the world’s population live there. Six of the cities that I visited have populations bigger than Australia, and thus were far bigger that New York, the place I grew up thinking of as the Big City.

The reason that these cities are so big is that Asia has been having an enormous economic boom. In my lifetime, hundreds of millions of people ascended into the middle class. And they way that they did so is fundamentally different than how European and American technological societies developed. In many places, it seems like the 20th century, in which I grew up, was skipped over entirely, and 19th century societies had jumped straight into the future.

The cultural differences are of course, both confronting and educational. I have never realized what it is like to not be able to read anything until I first went to China. But even though the writing systems, history, and culture are vastly different to the western world I’ve grown up in, the humanity and the science is still the same.

I am not a city person, but the nature of the work we were doing generally had us in capitol cities or other major urban areas.  And while this was hard for me, it also means I learned a lot by virtue of being challenged.


Ever since I can remember, I have resented being a Junior, and for most of my post-pubescent life I have been trying to distance myself from my parents as much as possible. This has resulted in me settling down in Australia, which is about as far as one can get from New Jersey without blasting into space. It turns out that my dad is a scientist too, and he is quite well respected in the field of surface and semiconductor analyses. This doesn’t have a lot to do with geology- that was one of the appeals of geology- but because he built one of the first SIMS instruments with a quadrupole analyser back in the 70’s, when I started building SHRIMPs at ASI this offered me an opportunity to reconnect with my dad. We even ended up writing a paper together. If I had stayed working in Alice Springs as a Central Australian fieldwork contractor, that almost certainly wouldn’t have happened.

Technical awesomeness

The Australian Scientific Instruments teams were, quite simply, ludicrously good at their jobs. A lot of the people I knew as an undergrad went to work for NASA, my first job outta college was in Menlo Park, the heart of Silicon Valley. The ANU, where I did my PhD was at that time a world leader in building technical equipment for geologic purposes. None of them could hold a finger to ASI. I suppose it must have just been an evolutionary necessity. After 25 years of competing against a 40 billion dollar multinational, you need to be pretty good at what you do, and we were.  Some highlights included:
All kids of multicollectors. The original SHRIMP multicollector at ANU was eventually taken apart and simplified, but ASI refined the design until it could be built, setup, shipped around the world and set up all over again. When the discovery of 4 isotope sulfur fractionation meant that three head collectors were essentially obsolete, we built a cleansheet design from scratch on a shoestring, and popped two on a couple of SHRIMPs in Japan with minimal complications.
The IRMS++. This is a 5 cup, Nier-Johnson mass spectrometer with an electron cyclotron resonance source, which we built from scratch for ANSTO. The original plan was for us to assemble it off of drawings they provided, but at our first planning meeting, on of our engineers took a look at what they were proposing, pointed out how many manufacturing and assembly issues can be obviated by thoughtful design, and then just took ownership of the project. There aren’t that many groups who can simply build all-new multicollector magnetic sector mass spectrometers from an ion trajectory, and I’m fortunate to have worked for one.

It was always strange to go to Silicon Valley, or Tokyo, of Beijing, and be treated like royalty, only to disappear back into our Fyshwick garage when we got home, but I guess that’s just one of the quirks of being a world-class outfit based far off the beaten track. And honestly, that’s kind of how we wanted it. ASI was a place of quiet achievement.


One of the lesser known highlights of ASI was the workplace culture. When I first arrived there, the company was about half immigrants, and half white Australian men brought up on the land. And the culture that evolved there- part tech startup, part paddock, was amazing. There was an expectation that everyone would do their own work well, without pride or preening, but there was also a willingness to help out if you could do something better or more efficiently than someone else. There was also a knowledge of who was good at what and how things could most easily be completed. It was a culture of low key, quiet achievement, and probably didn’t help the sales & marketing folks much, but it directly lead to the technical excellence listed above. And there was never blame, or finger pointing. It wasn’t until outside management came in towards the end that the word “fault” meant anything other than a broken electrical connection. And while everyone was fairly introverted- even by my standards- that didn’t stop things from getting done, and done well, and quickly.

 In these days, with the commodification of knowledge and know-how into intellectual property, the ability to create and improve often gets overlooked. But ASI was an exemplary example of a group of people who could do things, and I’m lucky to have been a part of it for so long. But the broader issue, and one reason I’m sharing all this, is that a lot of Australian ability suffers from similar dilemmas. This country has a traditional culture of quiet, selfless achievement. And while this can be very effective, in this day and age it is not always clear how this can be utilized and advertised. The culture of quiet achievement does not always mix well with the boosterism demanded by the short attention spans of some people these days who don’t think deeply enough about what they are doing and what can be achieved.

The Possibilities

The last thing that really appealed to me was how many low-hanging developmental fruit there were in teaching the SHRIMP new techniques. Because it has a two stage secondary acceleration column, the extraction field at the sample surface is more like a quad SIMS than any of the other magnetic sector SIMS instruments. So there are all sorts of analytical setups which could be implemented with only a tiny bit of additional engineering, which would allow the instrument to do types of analyses that simply weren’t possible before. I’m a little bit disappointed that I won’t be the guy to build and develop new techniques. But hopefully the new generation instrument that they’re building now will be able to do some neat stuff.

With the acquisition of the laser ICP stuff, there was obviously an opportunity to make all sots of cool multi-platform microanalytical synergy. I’m a little less optimistic that will happen- even though we did get a SHRIMP running on Geostar (as described in the technical supplement of our Geology Paper), I don’t know that anyone is currently working on following that work up. But it was promising enough for me to push it for as long as I thought there was a chance it would work.

In the end, I left because it wasn’t clear what staying would accomplish. In October of 2015 we had a round of layoffs, which included a successful senior engineer who was the most outspoken person with regards to resisting management’s attempts to put us on contracts instead of renegotiating our Enterprise Agreement. I was next in line to take up the mantle of employment rights agitator, and my value to the company was diminished by the fact that my boss had bailed from the Silicon Valley meetings I set up for him to drum up business,  thereby ensuring that I wouldn’t be bringing any new work in any time soon. I still second guess my choice to leave- The brave thing to do would have been to stay and try to bring a union in, but I convinced myself that getting off payroll would maybe save someone else’s job.  And though I second guess myself often, it isn’t clear what I could have done better.

The first 18 months of my new job has been settling in, and for most of the last year I’ve been trying to be more involved with my family and take better care of my health. As for what next? It’s hard to tell. But suggestions are welcome.

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