Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Book by Hope Jahren, photo by Fred Estes

Geobiologist Dr. Hope Jahren wrote Lab Girl as a story of her life in science. The core of her book chronicles her life as a young woman growing up to be a scientist. “In my memory of those dark winter nights [in rural Minnesota] … as my father [who taught physics and earth sciences at a small college] prepared for class the next day, I would work backwards through each canned experiment and demonstration, making sure the college boys would have the easy success toward which they were predisposed.” (p.8)

Her memoir recounts her struggles with becoming a scientist in a world where unwelcoming men dominate the field, protecting some imagined turf. For example, at a science conference in San Francisco, after Jahren presented her new work on water uptake in plants, “an enraged senior scientist… stood on a folding chair and yelled ‘I can’t believe you are saying this!’ while I tried to speak.” (p.168)

Interleaved with her memoir are eloquent science essays about the natural world, especially trees. Some reviewers have placed Lab Girl among the works of scientist-essayists such as Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, and Steven Jay Gould, who opened up the worlds of neurology, cell biology, and paleontology, respectively, to curious, literate, non-technical readers. Like these scientist-writers, Hope Jahren bridges the two worlds of STEM and the liberal arts.

Lab Girl describes a lifelong love of science and a passion for plants and the natural world. Jahren also recounts the obstacles all scientists face in earning even a small perch in academe to pursue their fervor for learning and discovering. After leaving graduate school deeply in debt, she and her colleague Bill found posts at Georgia Tech. “We soon found ourselves conducting a long-term experiment designed to measure how little we could spend each week and still get by, and frozen food had become a major component of our dietary intake.” (p.99)

One of my favorite sections of the book is in the Introduction. Jahren, a talented teacher, invites the reader to look out the window and find a tree. “People don’t know how to make a leaf, but they know how to destroy one.” “Now focus on a leaf, just one leaf,” she instructs. Carefully examine your leaf, direct your focus close enough to really see and not to merely look.

She directs our attention to different parts of the leaf, looking at the color, looking at the shape, looking at the edges. What is the texture? How big is it? Now think of just one question about your leaf. What do you want to know?

“Guess what? You are now a scientist. People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist or physics or chemistry. They’re wrong. That’s like saying you have to know how to knit to be a housewife or that you have to know Latin to study the Bible. Sure it helps, but there will be time for that. What comes first is a question, and you’re already there. It’s not nearly as involved as people make it out to be. So let me tell you some stories, one scientist to another.”

Lab Girl, p.4

The next time I teach an introductory science class, I will share this lesson with my students.

Who would like this book? Anybody considering a career in science will gain valuable insight, especially women just starting out. Dr. Jahren’s experience points out pitfalls and does not gloss over the hardships of the early years. Anyone who enjoys good writing about science and nature will delight in her essays. I learned so much in these pages, both about botany and about the life of a botanist. Anyone who finds the work of scientists vital and inspiring will savor this book.

I certainly savored Lab Girl, reading it twice and then buying the audio edition for commute listening. Reading how she overcame the many hurdles thrown in her way, often by older male scientists, deepened my appreciation of women entering STEM fields and fortified my resolve as an ally.

While I wince at her setbacks, I also rejoice in her victories. Her narrative sections on her experiments and her discoveries open up the process of science that is not often visible to those outside the lab and the field. Her writing fires the imagination and sings with poetry. Nabokov would appreciate her poetic precision and her scientific imagination. As her website proclaims #HOPEJAHRENSURECANWRITE.


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