“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”
The daughter of a community college science professor, Hope Jahren always felt at home in the laboratory, playing there while her father worked. After obtaining her PhD from UC Berkeley, she would go on to become a geobiologist, founding multiple laboratories, and winning honours from the Fulbright to the Young Investigator Medal. Part memoir, and part science, Lab Girl shares Jahren’s experiences from graduate school to tenured professor, and all the bumps along the way, including funding cuts, bipolar disorder, and changing institutions.
Lab Girl began its life as a text book, but Jahren found herself unable to separate what she had learned from how she learned it. So it became a memoir, and Jahren’s chapters alternate between describing her life and work, and waxing poetic about trees, plants, and nature more generally. When she reveals, late in the book, that she also writes poetry, it comes as no surprise. With her descriptions, she is able to make processes like photosynthesis and flowering both beautiful and interesting. Through her words you can fully appreciate the stunning feat that is a plant’s ability to make sugar out of light, or that fact that a tree that is one of the few living things—flora or fauna—that can stand motionless through a cold winter, and not die. Using the metaphor of the struggle a seed undergoes to become a plant, Jahren chronicles her own struggle to grow into a scientist, in a profession where money is short, and women are not always welcome, and others don’t always see the significance of what you are doing.
Jahren’s relationship with her parents is distant and cool, even as she describes her father as the inspiration for her interest in science. After the chapters on her childhood, they are rarely mentioned again. She does eventually marry, but she meets her husband late in life, and even then he features little in the text. The primary relationship in Lab Girl, and one of the most interesting parts of the story, is the decades long friendship with her lab assistant Bill. The two met when Jahren was a PhD student and teaching assistant, and Bill was an undergraduate. He is an odd but compelling character, and a constant in Jahren’s life as she moves from Georgia Tech to Johns Hopkins to the University of Hawaii. After they completed their degrees at the same time, Bill followed her to Atlanta to work in her first lab, and has remained her right hand ever since.
Another clear theme that emerges in Lab Girl is the ongoing difficulty of funding scientific research, particularly research that does not have any immediately identifiable practical application. A huge part of Jahren’s job is not doing the science or teaching she was hired for, but writing grant applications to ensure the continued operation of her lab, and the salaries of Bill and their ever-changing cast of student assistants. Without money, there is no science, and though Jahren secured a salary for herself, universities do not generally pay for labs, beyond some start-up funding for new professors. Jahren even slips a line into the book apologetically soliciting patrons, adding that she would be “absolutely crazy” not to include it.
I listened to Lab Girl as an audiobook, which Jahren performs herself, reading in a soft voice with a few pleasant traces of her Minnesota childhood. Her voice is quiet and unassuming, until she comes to the more difficult parts of the text, such as describing her struggles with mental illness. Then her voice overflows with emotion, giving the audiobook a personal touch that would not have been possible if it was performed by a voice actor. It perfectly embodies the way Jahren blends the personal and the scientific.
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