PI Quotes – 9 – “The most important experiments are the ones you don’t do”.

Some of the people I worked with have been a great inspiration for me. And overall, I really like to take a few steps back to think about how science works in general. The other day, trying to decide between which experiments to do first, I thought about what a great supervisor once told me: “The most important experiments are the ones you don’t do”.

In the same lines, Louis Armstrong once said that the most important notes were the ones he didn’t play; and Rodin said that the sculpting process was about removing the stone that was not part of the sculpture.


It is unsettling a first, but let me explain. In the case of scientific research, we all know that we have only limited amounts of time to discover new things, and make a point of it. Very often, I find myself in front of an ocean of possibilities, curiosities, and things that a want to try and test. One option to tackle this is to get students and let them help you. The other is to make choices, more or less rationally. Choosing, not what is the most important, and what is a bit less important, and leave it on the side for later. Only so that you uncover the main path, or the critical experiment. By the way, people now call this the “money experiment” or the “money figure”. Not sure I approve that appellation, but you get the idea.


Being in the second-half of a PhD means doing this on a weekly basis, and I sometime regrets early days of innocent and random wanderings trough experiments. I am a least grateful that my PI let me do that for a while, if only it could last a bit longer …


Famous Scientists Quotes -4- Theories should be treated like mistresses.

As already mentioned in my previous post, last week took place a team brainstorming session in the lab.

lightbulb-ideaIt actually made me realize how much we (the scientist) love to think about crazy ideas and theories, and sort of fall in love with them, and stick with them no matter what.

Gut feelings, or just enticing perspectives are enough to make us believe things are half-true even tough we don”t have any/poor data supporting it.

And then, I though about what I read in Sydney Brenner’s biography, one of his many funny quotes : “Theories should be treated like mistresses. One should never fall in love with them and they should be discarded when the pleasure they provide is over.”

Despite the machism underlying this sentence, I have to admit I kind of like it. And there is definitively some underlying truth in it.

Student Quotes -1- “They don’t hire technicians anymore, they hire PhD students”

We have quite a lot of students around in the lab these days. They are either at the level of bachelors, technician school, masters, etc … and it’s quite funny to hear them talk about our world sometimes. Somehow, they are still “outsiders” and incredibly naive about things. But they can also be unbiased observers.

A few weeks ago, one of them said : “You know, they don’t hire technicians anymore, they hire PhD students”. Hummmmm ….. that kinda felt like a SLAP in the face. Although is was not meant like that. And I might be over-thinking it a little bit.

Somehow, it still felt like the secondary meaning of that remark had some truth. Sometimes, you do feel like a technician, with just some more theoretical knowledge. But you have to do the pipetting and the thinking/reading/writing; and the pressure of getting good data makes it difficult to keep these two activities balanced.

With my bench mate, we decided to tackle this problem by buying a big white board for our desk where we doodle ideas, sketches, etc … Standing in front of it, we talk about our weird observations and far-fetched theories. These moments of pure speculations going wild and wilder are among the best moments in our PhD’s.

So no, we are not technicians, but sometimes you have to actively work on it. 

Famous Scientists Quotes -3-: “Become a scientist only if you cannot imagine yourself doing anything else”

Hi all,

I have been listening to old podcasts of “This Week in Virology” lately, notably TWIV n°100, with David Baltimore (Do I even need to present him ?) as a guest star. He was talking about all the seminal work he did in virology, and was asked to give an advice to young aspiring scientists. And he said the following: “Become a scientist only if you cannot imagine yourself doing anything else. It is hard, and only gets harder.” 

Picture from discover magazine.

To be honest, it creeps me out big time. I’m not going to lie. I can totally picture myself doing something else. Many things actually. So I asked my supervisor, former supervisors, other scientists, what they thought of this. To my great relief, they ALL said that they could imagine themselves somewhere else, and that they even seriously though about getting out of academia at some stages of their careers.  Pfffiouuuu, right ?

So let’s just stop acting like academic science was just the only valid thing to do when you love science. And even following that path does not mean not imagining yourself going somewhere else sooner or later.

PI Quotes 6 – “It’s beautiful to be naïve”

Time for a new quote. One that I think about a lot these days.

When I started university, and went trough the Bachelor’s and Master’s years, I -retrospectively- see that I was incredibly naïve. I went through these years smoothly, without thinking too much about it. Enjoying it most of the time, without thinking about the future. Being fearless, spontaneous, and not rationalizing or over thinking too much. Just going for things. I think that’s what they call “early twenties”.

In less then a month, I’m turning 25, and although I know it’s not old, not a big deal, and will not change anything in my day-to-day life, it made me conscious that this naïveté goes away bits by bits. And I’m not liking it.

A few years ago, I thought that people who where honest, well-intentioned, and hard-working necessarily made it through life. I thought that passionate and good scientists should not have troubles getting a nice job at university. I though, with blissful optimism, that life was fair.

With years going by, I see that things are not that bright. Did society change, or is it me, seeing things I could not see before ? I do not believe anymore that talented hard-working people necessarily get a good job in academia, I see that even fabulous research projects do not always get funded, and science looks more an more like an ego-driven enterprise, influenced by finances, buzz words, and fashion. (Don’t get me started on “translationnal research”)

So, yeah, when this PI looked at me in the eyes to say: “It’s beautiful to be naïve”. I knew it was true, I knew I looked naive to him, and simply wished it was real.

It’s weird, feeling that you grow up. Reinforcing and weakening at the same time.

PI Quotes – 5 “Grad students don’t stay at the lab on week-end if their salary is too high”

I realized that until now, all my PI Quotes were either funny, either truly positive.  Nevertheless, we all know that some PI’s go from being a little offensive here and there to complete jerks. You can judge by yourself where on this ladder this one stands …

Let’s give some context: I’m on a conference, around a table, talking with other PhD’s, Post-Doc’s, and PI’s about our salary. We note that a swiss PhD student earns probably more then a french PI … (true story)

Then, this  PI says : “Grad students don’t stay at the lab on week-end if their salary is too high. They rather book a flight for a week-end in Barcelona ! That’s not good.”

That literally knocked my socks off because : 1 – He/She was not drinking, and 2 – It was not meant as a joke … 1% of me knew that there was so truth there, but 99% of me also shouted at him “sorry whhaaattttt ?” , noting that this person really thought that “grad student = dumb research robot that is meant to stay in the lab 24/7” …

At the end, beyond revolting, disrespectful, and contemptuous, it’s just really sad … 

Famous Scientists Quotes – 1 – Chance favors only the prepared mind.

Time for another quote ! This time, not from a contemporary PI, but from one of my favorite scientist (a review of a biography will come up at some point) : Louis Pasteur !

When casually talking with your fellow PhD’s, I’m sure you often end up saying that what make the difference between an average PhD and and great PhD is a little bit of chance. I have to say I don’t fully adhere to the idea, and to support it, here come the quote of the day :

“Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur

I would fully agree with this statement. A talented scientist had always to be ready for chance, and should be ready to see peculiar little results as interesting, rather then “missed experiment”, “background noise”, “variability”, “outliner”, and so on … Great discoveries were made by people who knew how to look at data scientifically, and who were prepared for chance. I think it’s a crucial point.

Moreover, I would like to add this one : “When you work seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, you get lucky.” – Louis Pasteur

That’s even more true. Success always ends up being tightly conditioned by work. I do not believe a second that talent, chance, or fate are ever enough.

Hum … food for thoughts, right ?