The evolution of a n00b PI

I started science as a little grad student who knew nothing. Well, not nothing – I could use a pipetman, streak out bacteria on agar plates, practice sterile technique. I knew a bit about the large field of microbiology, a little less about bacteria, even less about the sub-field and sub-sub-fields of my graduate laboratory, and virtually nothing about the sub-sub-sub-field that, five years later, I would write my dissertation on. I spent the next five years going in deep, exploring an area of microbiology that very few people in the world knew that well, and by the time I graduated, I was one of only a few experts in my tiny little field, and that field alone.

I moved onto my postdoc lab and a sub-sub-field that was distinct from my work as a graduate student, but still within the same sub-field. Over the course of another five years, my project, derived from my postdoc mentor’s previous findings, weaved through several new sub-sub-fields, and I became differentially familiar with many new areas of research. All the while, I was building a distinct (and new!!) research focus and expertise for myself. I wrote a grant, got it funded, and took this new research focus to start my own lab.

I can say the following quite confidently: I am the only person in the world who knows this topic as well as I do. Even when all the papers are published, even after I present data and insights at meetings, even as I relay my knowledge to my lablings, nobody else will understand this very specific area of microbiology the way I do. And as I train my labbies, I’m finding it increasingly apparent that nobody ever will.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

It’s impossible to make my labbies experts in the exact same very specific field of microbiology. They do not have the same experiences I do; they don’t have the same interests I do; they won’t absorb and learn and understand science the same way I do; they’ll come to different conclusions and go in different directions with my current data; they’ll generate new data that tears down some (if not all) of my hypotheses. As my trainees, they have access to my expertise, my guidance, my nudging. But they’ll also see me step back, in an effort to push them to become independent experts in their own sub-sub-sub-fields.

It’s quite scary – the thought of handing off the science I’ve spent so long learning about to complete n00bs, knowing they can’t possibly understand it the same way I do, and watching what they do with it. On the other hand, this whole PI thing would be quite boring if all I did was create little clones of myself**. Not to mention the stress that kind of system would create – I’ve generated lots of unique ideas in my past 10 years of training, and there’s going to come a time when someone else will need to get creative. It’s not my job to pass on every bit of knowledge I have to even the most promising student. It’s not my job to get them to see things the exact same way I do. Instead, it is my job to give my trainees the tools and guidance they will need to become experts in their own field.

At least this is how I’m seeing my job as a PI right now. We’ll see how this hypothesis holds up over the next few years.

*Pro-tip: This is why I am the best person to lead the work on this specific research topic, an idea I made clear in the aforementioned grant application.

**Although clones would be helpful for dealing with the administrative crap.

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