Behind the Lab Coat: An Imagined Conversation with Pauline, Animal Behavior Scientist and Supermom

In our “33 Questions” interview series, we dive into the unique world of balancing research and personal life through the eyes of our WiRe fellows. It is undoubtably difficult to plan a career in research, and balancing this with raising a family adds yet another complex layer to the mix. WiRe strives to support Women in academia, and especially mothers in academia.

One particular question in the 33 Questions series challenges fellows to simplify their intricate postdoctoral work into concepts that even a child can grasp. As we all know, children are curious! Recently, our fellow Pauline, who specialises in animal behavior expanded this question, engaging us in an imaginary conversation with one of her own three children. 

Hi! My name is Lilou! I want to tell you about a very interesting talk I had with my Mom yesterday. My mom is a researcher who wants to make every animal happy. Our mom is working a lot. She not only helps our dad cooking good dinners and helping us cleaning our stuff, but she also writes a lot of stuff on her computer and has spent a lot of her days at the “lab”. Today, we live in France with our parents, where me and them are originated from. But I can tell you this story in English because we’ve just spent 3 years in California, where both of my parents did a “post-doc”. It’s also in California that my little sister and my little brother were born! There is always something new happening in our lives, but one thing always stays the same – my mom‘s love for animals!

Lilou: Moooooom, why do you spend so much time in your room working on your computer every day? That’s a lot of screen time!

Mom: Oh… thank you for asking! Actually, my job requires a lot of screen time, more than would be advised for anyone, even grown-ups! But I am not always on my computer! I also work in a special place called a “lab,” and in my lab, I study the personalities of animals – what makes them special. It’s like trying to understand how each animal is unique and what makes them act the way they do.

Lilou: Oh, like how some animals are shy, and some are brave?

Mom: Exactly! Animals have different personalities and act in different ways, just like people do. I use something called the Big Five model, which is like looking at a rainbow of colors to describe different traits in animals.

Lilou: Wait.. your work is to be like looking at rainbows??? What do you mean by traits?

Mom: Well, the personality traits of animals and humans are like the colors of the rainbow. In the Big Five model, these are called 

openness to experience




and extraversion 

(I agree, those are very complex words, but it’s OK if you don’t get it right now). Each animal has a unique mix of these traits, or let‘s pretend they are colors. Everyone has their own color! Just like how each person is a mix of different qualities.

Lilou: Can we see these traits in our pets, like our cat? I don’t see rainbow colors on her fur… I would like to have a rainbow kitty!

Mom: Well… You can observe our cat’s behavior in different situations to see her personality. For example, how does she react to new things or changes? Researchers like me use these methods in the lab to study many many different animals in different social environments.

Lilou: Social what? What does that mean?

Mom: Great question! The social environment is all about how animals interact with each other. I’m studying how the personalities of animals in a group influence each other. It would be like investigating if your friends in your classroom influence your personality. And the purpose is to find out which individuals fit the best with each other. Like the pieces of a puzzle. It is supposed to make them feel better.

Lilou: Do animals’ personalities change when they grow-up? Am I going to change too?

Mom: Yes, just like people can change, animals’ personalities can too. Big events, or the surroundings, like who they live with, can make a difference. That’s why I’m so interested in studying how these factors affect animals.

Lilou: And Mommy, why do you want to know all this?

Mom: It helps us take better care of them, of course! By knowing how different personalities adapt to where they live and with who they live, scientists can improve their lives. And if the animals are happy in the lab, they can also be happy to help us with our experiments, as long as they are feeling well.

Lilou: Wow, Mom, you do so much! How do you find time for everything?

Mom: It’s a balancing act! I mean, it’s very tricky to find enough time to do my work and take care of you guys. I need to be very organized. I love what I do, and it makes me happy to work. I also want to make sure animals are happy, and that includes our pets too. Sometimes, I even take a nap to recharge (yes, a nap!) and keep doing all the amazing things I do without being too tired. And when my job is done, I am super excited to go home and spend the rest of the day with you!

Lilou: You are so brave! I want to help animals be happy too when I grow up.

Mom: That’s a wonderful goal! You can start learning more about animals and maybe even do exciting things like this one day. It’s all about curiosity and caring for our furry friends!