Meet Carley Crann, a technician in the radiocarbon sample prep lab at the André E. Lalonde Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Laboratory at University of Ottawa.
How do you use your training in doing what you’re doing?
I was trained at Queen’s University, Belfast. The training was hands-on. So we actually took samples from raw materials: wood, bones, peat, shells, and we were trained on how to break it down, give it a chemical pre-treatment, combust the sample to CO2, and then convert the CO2 to elemental carbon. The elemental carbon adheres to iron powder during a process called graphitization, and then we would take the sample and press it into a target. So, I had my training during my masters and it ultimately lead to exactly what I do on a daily basis now.
So, you’re basically doing what you were trained for?
Yep, I am doing exactly what I was trained for.
What about your career appeals to you more than research?
It was a personal decision for me to get into the technical stream because I like the lifestyle. You know, working 9 to 5 processing samples and being able to go home at the end of the day and not having stress to apply for NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) and major grants. But I still get to be involved in research. So it’s the best of both worlds for me.
Is it boring just doing a lot of samples?
It is not boring. For example, to make elemental trap pure CO2, we have to use liquid nitrogen so it’s almost -200 degrees Celsius and, at the same time, we use a torch to melt the glass and trap the sample, so a lot of things that I do are actually fun. We get to work with students as well, so that’s always an interesting challenge.
What was the most interesting situation you’ve ever been in?
People are always emailing us with very interesting questions about radiocarbon. We had a violin maker who bought wood in New York City. It’s called Pernambuco, it’s a wood from Brazil and he couldn’t bring it from New York City across the border into Canada because Pernambuco is banned. You cannot cut it down, but he bought it from somebody who told him that it had been cut down many years ago. So, he wanted to radiocarbon date it to prove it was cut down before the ban. It ended up being the age he was told and it was therefore legal, but we haven’t heard yet whether or not he has brought it across the border. We have had lots of interesting things come in to the lab, mummified human remains…
And did you cut them open?
No, people only bring a small fraction that they need. So not the whole mummy, just a tooth or small piece of bone.
Is working with human remains scary? Or yucky?
I thought it would be, but not at all! When you cut into bone it has a very strange smell that I don’t particularly like, but otherwise it’s not gross. It’s just bone, there’s no flesh.
When you were a child, what did you think you’d be doing as an adult?
That’s hard to say. As a kid I wasn’t thinking about my future career – I was thinking about doing well at school and my friends. But I’ve always been interested in everything, which made it hard to choose if I should go in to science or business at university. I focused on business in high school, but took a few science courses for fun. Grade 12 Earth and Space Science ultimately led me to switch to geology at University and that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had a rock collection as a kid (didn’t we all…) so perhaps I wanted to be a geologist before I knew what that was!
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career?
When I take them on a tour of the lab, including the AMS (accelerator mass spectrometer), they are always in awe. My favorite reaction was, “What you do is SO different from what I do!” Everyone’s heard of radiocarbon dating and they love hearing stories about the interesting samples we work on, or they ask questions about things they’ve seen on TV.