After speaking with Betina yesterday, I felt much better. It was Betina’s reminder that made me realize for the first time how much I’ve missed Cambridge and everyone from Pietro’s lab. Pietro is a special kind of supervisor—he’s never been cold or distant. His personality and charm naturally show through in our interactions, making him known and genuinely liked as a person, not just as a boss assigning tasks. Even today, and probably for a long time to come, I will be mentioning Pietro to everyone, talking about what an amazing supervisor I had, and how wonderful the people are in his research group.

“Which edge are you on?”

The first time I met Pietro was on Zoom. Fumiya had forwarded an advertisement from Pietro’s lab: We need a research assistant to study the movement of wheat. If you want to keep someone in Cambridge for a while, get in touch with me! I was in a phase of looking for a job or a PhD position, so I immediately wrote an email saying: I can do this job! At the time Pietro invited me for an interview, I was still wandering around Barcelona. I told him the hostel had no quiet space. We met in person for the first time after I got back to Cambridge. I was a bit upset, trying hard to present my Master’s research and attempting to relate it to Pietro’s project, hoping he would hire me. Pietro, however, seemed very relaxed. When I mentioned my grades were meh, about the average, hovering around the edge of a first-class, Pietro burst into laughter: “So, are you on the upper edge of that first-class boundary, or the lower one?” I laughed along with him: “Of course the lower edge! If it were the upper one, I would have already boasted to you about being top tripos!”

Unexpectedly, like many other interviews, this one seemed to have vanished into the air. I almost forgot about it while touring and applying for other jobs when, two months later, I suddenly received an email from Pietro asking if I was still interested in the position. I was surprised; he actually remembered it! Finally I was at the Cavendish Laboratory with a mix of nervous excitement, although I got locked out several times at first because I didn’t have an access card (maybe the waiting time will follow a Poisson distribution…). At that time, I didn’t know yet that I was about to create many of my most beautiful memories of Cambridge here.

At the Newnham Garden Party, I wore the biggest floral dress of my life, resembling a grand peacock.

Never Doubt Yourself

When Pietro assigned me a task, it seemed straightforward—I thought I could finish it within a week! Unfortunately, more than a month passed… and I was still baffled by the code from the project… Self-doubt loomed over me like a dark cloud, swelling incessantly with gloom. In a meeting with Pietro, under the shadow of that cloud, I couldn’t help but ask him, “Are you disappointed in me?” To my surprise, he said, “Not at all! You’re doing quite well!” Instantly, the dark cloud above me shrank in size. Pietro often reassured me afterward that I was doing well, which I initially thought that was just his way of keeping my spirits up. However, things started to get better. For the first time, I went up to ask Ricardo about a coding issue, saying, “Help, I am having a meeting with Pietro tomorrow, but I don’t understand this…” Ricardo, our coding expert, clarified things in just a few sentences. After making some modifications, I managed to obtain my first set of results. My cloud of self-doubt started to disappear.

During lunch one time, we somehow all started competing to see who could hold a plank the longest... Passersby must have been really puzzled about what we were up to.

What It’s Like to Slack Off Together

Pietro loves telling jokes more than anyone and has rightfully earned the title of Cavendish’s Joke King (a title I bestowed). His group meetings are quite unique; we would take turns briefly sharing what we did the previous week or if there’s anything in the lab that needs fixing. When it was his turn, Pietro sometimes would say: “Ahem, last week, well, I was busy teaching undergraduates, so, I didn’t do much of anything!” Pietro has always been this honest and never pretends to be more than he is in front of everyone. Our individual meetings were even better. I went from being anxious, staying up late the night before to make more progress, fearing I would disappoint Pietro, to realizing that these meetings weren’t just about him checking on my progress as a boss. Instead, they were valuable opportunities to share our thoughts, discuss any issues, and get new inspirations. I started to enjoy our meetings more and more. Knowing I was used to sleeping late, he would thoughtfully ask, “How about we meet at 11 tomorrow morning, is that late enough?” (Me: “Well, it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit later! LOL. But 11 is great already!”) Usually, shouldn’t the student be the one worrying about the progress if we hadn’t met for over a week? Yet, Pietro would say: “Uh, your project, these past two weeks, I haven’t really looked into it, my apologies…” Just as I was about to feel guilty, he happened to be the one to feel embarrassed first.

Just another lunch break.

Chinese Ballon

For PhD programs, I applied to ten universities, which meant Pietro needed to submit ten letters of recommendation. “Thank you for writing those recommendation letters. I’ve brought you a gift from China…” I said as I was digging through my backpack. It was during the time when a Chinese weather balloon had drifted into US airspace, causing quite a stir. Pietro flashed a mischievous smile: “What kind of gift, it wouldn’t happen to be a Chinese balloon, would it? Hahaha!” It took me three seconds to catch on. Regarding this, Coach Liu remarked: “See, he had time to surf the internet, but not to look at your research project!”

Filip and Ricardo were deep in discussion about PCB design, while Rini and I exchanged puzzled glances on the side.

The Coolest Kid in the Lab

Collecting data in the wheat fields required a drone, and one day, Pietro finally handed his drone over to me. Everyone in the office gathered around to check out this big toy. We immediately started competing to see who could pass the drone pilot’s online license test first. Thanks to Pietro, for a moment, I felt like the coolest kid in the lab for being in charge of the drone! For the next two months, I was out in the nearby wheat fields flying the drone almost every day. I’d let it hover at 50 meters, 30 meters, and 10 meters high, then find a comfy spot to sit back and quietly wait for the wind. My eyes had to be sharp, ready to press the capture button as soon as the waves of wheat surged. I often took my buddies with me to the fields, and aside from the wheat, we snapped a ton of photos of ourselves. Later, when I was uploading the flight data, I accidentally uploaded all the media files to Pietro’s drone account too… That meant he could see all our goofy photos together with the research data. I was embarrassed that I hurriedly deleted all the photos from the account…

My buddies and I were test-flying the drone.

The Trip to Nottingham

Our research project was in collaboration with the University of Nottingham. One day, Pietro goes, “Let’s head to Nottingham this Thursday!” Wait a minute, the drive from Cambridge to Nottingham is two hours—that means I’m in for a four-hour one-on-one with Pietro… Thankfully, those four hours weren’t awkward at all. We packed up the drone and hit the road, chatting about everything and nothing all the way.

I asked him what it felt like to be a professor, and Pietro compared it to running a small business that never grows beyond about fifteen people (the usual size of a lab). “Imagine the school’s building filled with many small ‘companies’ just like ours,” he said. “Our ‘product’ is research papers, and you need those to secure new research funding, or else the ‘company’ fails.” He continued, “One funny thing about running this ‘company’ is that sometimes your ‘employees’ won’t just do as they’re told. They’ve always got plenty of their own ideas, hahaha!” Instantly, I thought of myself always coming to him with a bunch of wild ideas, trying to convince him we could get something big from them…

Pietro mentioned that Cambridge was not the most diverse place; there are many Chinese students but not many professors from China. I joked as I promised him, “Just wait until I finish my PhD and post-doc; in ten years, you’ll have a new colleague from China (please remember to hire me!).”

I wondered if living in the UK for so many years might make him slowly forget Italian. Pietro proudly claimed he’d always be a true Italian. “Did you know people call Italy the ‘Little China’ of Europe?” Pietro asked. I laughed; indeed, our cultures do share a lot, like making noodles/pastas in a thousand ways! We also touched on “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, musing that maybe the author was right, being a hunter-gatherer might have been happier, free from worries about not owning houses or cars, or not outperforming classmates… He roared with laughter, saying humans haven’t really changed much from the times when forest monkeys would find overripe fruit, get tipsy, and sleep it off in trees. We’re still suckers for good wine today!

On the way back, we talked about “The Three-Body Problem,” and I asked Pietro if he’d seen Liu Cixin’s new movie “The Wandering Earth,” spoiling the spectacular scene where the moon gets blown up for pushing the earth away. He also talked about his family and kids. “Little kids tell you everything, but once they grow up, there comes a day when they stop sharing…” He has a little daughter, and his tone was filled with love when he spoke of her: “She’s so young, yet so logical in her speech. I know she’s going to be very bright!” Suddenly, I understood why Pietro would always disappear promptly at 4 p.m., even if he was in the middle of a meeting, rushing off to pick up his daughter. It was all about the joy of family!

Pietro was cutting the birthday cake.

Happy Birthday, Pietro!

I’m about to head back home, and a week before my departure, Pietro will start his vacation. He said we won’t see each other for a while and wished me the best. Pietro’s birthday would be on Monday, and we planned to pool some money together to buy him a cake. Over the weekend, Rini and I hit the streets looking for a cake shop. We stumbled upon an Italian Gelato shop that made ice cream cakes, and the owner was Italian too—couldn’t be more perfect! Walking in, an angelic girl took our order with a smile. “What message should we write on the cake?” she asked. We decided on “Buon Compleanno, Pietro!”. Then she paused, “Wait, Pietro, as in Cavendish’s Pietro?” Surprised, we replied, “Yes! We’re his students!” Turns out, the girl was Pietro’s eldest son’s girlfriend—Cambridge really is too small!

At the final birthday party, Pietro mentioned he didn’t want to move to a new building because he would be forgetting the people in the old office if he won’t see them often. As I was about to leave, I asked, “So will you forget me too?” True to his nature, Pietro honestly replied, “Yes.” Maybe one day I’ll slowly forget Pietro, but at least for now, every time I see the wind stirring the lush green leaves, I’m reminded of the golden waves of wheat in the fields and the Fourier transforms—things that Pietro has taught me to observe with care.

Rini prepared my farewell cake.

I miss everyone in Pietro’s lab. Sometimes, I wish I could just fall asleep and wake up at my desk in Cavendish’s Rutherford building, with my head resting on my pink pig plushie. Rini has just returned from an experiment in PoM, Zeke has fed his precious corals and taken loads of beautiful microscope pictures; Jamie is in the corner, typing away with his Brighton cap on; Merlin has just printed a new 3D toy and is showing it off to everyone; Philip is sipping on Coke again—he really drinks it every day, and I want to tell him it’s bad for his teeth, but this might sound too naggy; Viridina is storming over from her office, rallying us all for lunch. And I know, tomorrow I’ll see Pietro, we’ll all still be here, tomorrow, and if the weather’s nice, we’ll grab our fish and chips from Westhub and head to the Cavendish pond’s grass to bath in the sun.

In Pietro’s lab, I enjoyed the equal and friendly atmosphere among us. He showed me the immense power of respect, equality, and love, how they can make me and those around me vibrant and joyous! I’ll treat my friends and mentors the same way in the future. I will be the sender and the receiver of respect, equality, and love.