cautionary nature

I said something to my PI the other day that might come back to haunt me. 

I am relatively new in the lab, and am still becoming accustomed to its eccentricities. More than anything, I am becoming accustomed to how much attention my PI (boss, in science-speak*) lavishes upon the lab. Most PIs I know usually leave the students to their own devices, the main source of interaction coming from emails and weekly meetings. They are seldom in the lab space.

My PI, however, is in the laboratory all the time; and, not only that, but he checks in with everyone all the time. He has been especially keen on my project: I am investigating the last island in an archipelago of brain structures involved in motor circuitry. He asks for updates almost daily. And, because of these regular interactions, he has begun to get a sense for my personality: my cheekiness, my stubbornness, my cautionary nature.

“How did your experiment go?” he asked me, just as I was sliding a needle into the heart of a ketamine-overdosed baby rat.

I shrugged, somewhat noncommittally. “All right, I think.” It seemed foolish, at that point in the project, to be optimistic.

He crossed his arms high on his chest and tilted his head forward slightly, which augmented the furrowing between his brows. “You don’t seem very confident.”

“I’m not.”


Always, the direct, incisive questions. It’s one of the things that I like about him as a mentor. There is no pussy-footing around a subject. I started my perfusion, pumping blood from the rat’s body; then, I turned to look at him, leaning against the counter in my white lab coat.

“It’s a complicated project. We’ve run up against a lot of problems.”

“But you’re working through them,” he said hurriedly. “We need to identify what part of the process is making you so uncertain of yourself, and correct it.”

Without thinking, I gave him a smile that fell halfway between a smirk and a grimace. “I’m a scientist and a woman. I second-guess myself constantly. It’s in my nature.”

It was intended to be a flippant remark. I often joke that science has benefited on the whole from the inclusion of women, since we are raised to be so skeptical of ourselves. It’s a slightly bitter joke, but still not without humor. I didn’t think anything of it.

My PI, however, simply stared at me. Not that open, dumb kind of stare that people adopt when you’ve dropped a bomb. A pensive, gnawing kind of stare that furrowed his brows, if possible, even deeper.

And then, very seriously, before turning abruptly to leave the room, he said:

“We’re going to have to work on that.”

*PI, for those of you who are not familiar, is an abbreviation for “Principal Investigator”. 

This is a write-up of an exchange that occurred a few weeks ago. I found it curious. And I finally found the time to write it down. 

Oh, and he didn’t actually use the word “experiment”. In our lab, we call an experiment a “run” (which, needless to say, as a runner, it was initially very confusing to me when someone would say “I’m going to run today”).


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