To Nicole Gerardo:
I want to thank you publicly, because the world needs to hear what I am about to say.
I have worked in enough science labs, with wildly varying personalities, under investigators who have experienced varying degrees of success, that I think I know at least something about what makes a successful scientist.
To be successful, a scientist should at least have drive, talent, dedication, and preparation. A curiosity, a quirky or even crazy obsession with something – a question, an organism, a theory, a perspective so new that it can’t yet be named. Persistence, of course. Precision. Attention to the literature, reading hungrily but with a critical eye. Communication with peers. Careful analysis that accurately presents the story, neither minimizing nor overemphasizing the pertinent facts. Good writing and speaking skills. Then there is enough humility, cooperative spirit, and humor to work within the confines of an institution and all its paradoxical limitations and unreasonable demands.
But there are also personal qualities that I’ve noticed, that make not only a good scientist, but a highly functional lab. To create the atmosphere for a highly intelligent, ambitious, odd group of people to thrive is a rare ability. In a lab group, some are more driven than talented, some are more obsessively quirky than prepared. A good PI at the helm can corral all of these personalities, recognize the best in everyone, move each one uniquely forward, pushing them past their comfort zone but not break them, and ultimately prepare them to move onward, outward into the wider world, on to their next intellectual adventure. I had the rare opportunity to work in such a lab.
Among the general populace, it is not that common to meet someone who even chooses the inspiring but difficult life of a scientist. Less common still is a scientist who has what it takes to succeed, with all that entails, juggling teaching responsibilities, pressure to publish, departmental politics, the grueling march toward tenure, serving the wider university community, and still doing creative things.
To find someone who does all of that, and then somehow manages the generosity to nurture people with grace, to push and keep pushing but then also forgive, to recognize talent and passion and find the right challenge for the right person at the right time, well, that is truly rare.
Nicole, I can’t thank you enough for believing in me at just the right time. Twice, you took a chance on me. Once, taking this artist-cum-entomology-geek into your lab in the first place, and letting me develop some incipient art-science ideas. And now, giving me the wonderful opportunity to grow my own ambitious project under your guidance, without interference, with only encouragement and gentle nudges toward clarity and precision when I needed them. I know this wasn’t a trivial venture – we worked hard. What can I say? I hope you were right.
I know a damn good scientist when I see one. But you, my friend and mentor, are also a good person. And that is way, way harder to do. Congratulations. And thank you.