The Francis Crick Institute opened this week. With an estimated construction budget of £700 million (£40 million from King’s College London) and an annual projected budget of £130 million. It is a site to see coming out of King’s Cross station. I had the good fortune of accompanying my supervisor to the Crick to visit their Magnetic Resonance Facility in the depths of the 4th basement floor.

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    The view from the lobby. Note the open plan offices looking over the lobby for frustrated PhD students and Post-Docs. The extremely high ceiling creates an ethereal atmosphere. Similar to gothic architecture, but less depressing.

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Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) is a research technique that takes advantage of the quantum properties of atoms in order to gain physical and chemical knowledge of whatever sample you want to study.

To make it as brief as possible, every atom’s nuclei has a certain quantum spin. This can be imagined like a bicycle wheel spinning on its axis. In a complex sample, you can imagine all the atoms spinning in different directions. If we force all the atoms in a sample into the same orientation with a very strong electromagnetic pulse, you can then record the emission the sample gives off as the sample ‘relaxes’ back into its original spin state. I find that Khan Academy can explain it much better.

You know when you first played with magnets when you were a kid and thought it was really cool (if you never did I feel bad for you)? People who work with NMR magnets just thought it was the coolest thing ever and never stopped playing with magnets.

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SMBC http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/rocks

Fortunately for these guys, magnets have shown themselves to be incredibly useful in research, from studying the structure of proteins, to understanding the metabolism of cancer cells, to imaging the brain in patients. Therefore, people get paid to continue playing with magnets. Win-win!

Normally with NMR people use liquids. However, in some situations one may want to gain chemical information about solids. That’s where solid-state NMR comes in. Atoms in solids aren’t as mobile as in liquids and because of this property it makes getting decent NMR spectra difficult. To overcome this limitation some researchers (like myself) spin their samples at a very high velocity (from 5KHz) while tilting their sample at the diagonal of a cube (the ‘magic angle). In this way they can mimic a liquid environment and get data similar to liquid NMR. I use this method in my research to understand how melanomas change their metabolism during metastasis.

The Crick is hoping to set up solid-state capabilities in their facility and had asked us over to aid them in the complex and slightly tedious set up procedure and to test one of my samples (a human melanoma cell line). I was really excited because I could see what one of my samples looked like in a 600MHz magnet as opposed to the 400MHz magnet available to me at King’s.

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The NMR facility. Here you can see three of the five magnets. From right to left; 700, 800, 950 MHz magnets. As you can see, some of these machines are massive.

So we spent the morning and part of the afternoon playing with the magic angle, tuning the magnet, setting up our pulse sequences and giving one of my samples a go. All in all a fantastic experience. I hope to return once everything is set up to get some excellent data.

-Tokuwa Kanno