Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction
Book Jacket Synopsis: “Acclaimed scientists Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life – but it is also so much more. Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands;” and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work. Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home. Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.”
Review: Lab Girl was gifted to me by my research-mentor-turned-life-advisor about a year ago. While I really love nonfiction (particularly scientific and environmental nonfiction), I don’t have much experience with memoirs, which led me to put off reading Lab Girl far longer than I should have. My primary fear of being bored was quickly dispelled, as Jahren has an amazing voice that easily keeps readers enthralled.
“It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.”
Given that my own research focuses on ocean-dwelling animals, and that Jahren opens her memoir with an explanation of why she studies plants instead of the ocean (a question she is often asked, as she currently lives in Hawaii), I didn’t know what to expect as far as relatability was concerned. After finishing Lab Girl, however, I strongly believe that any woman working on building a career in a STEM discipline should read this book.
“I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.”
Jahren’s battles with issues such as funding, sexism, and mental health felt very familiar and authentic, and her clear triumph over the many obstacles between her and success was refreshing.
“In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”
Using plants as a metaphor for her own growth and evolution, Jahren does an amazing job of making tricky science understandable (for the most part) to a wide audience. While I had expected strong scientific writing and interesting research from Lab Girl, what I didn’t expect was the actual heartbeat of this memoir: the remarkable friendship between Jahren and her platonic soulmate, Bill. Reading Lab Girl made me wish that I could somehow worm my way into this remarkable duo. Jahren and Bill clearly understand each other on a molecular level, and their witty banter coupled with strong affection for each other was fundamental to the success of this book.
“Well, you do swear too much,” I countered, unwilling to completely concede his point. Bill agreed that this was probably fucking true.
If the sheer number of quotes in this post hasn’t already been enough of a giveaway, I really loved Jahren’s writing style and will certainly read any future books from her. I also learned some important lessons about hard work and the true meaning of perseverance when it comes to the many trials and tribulations of scientific research. With my second semester of graduate school beginning tomorrow, I hope to apply some of Jahren’s principles and advice to my own research and academic life.
“There are two ways to deal with a major setback: one is to pause, take a deep breath, clear your mind and go home, distract yourself for the evening, and come back fresh the next day to start over. The other is to immediately resubmerge, put your head under and dive to the bottom, work an hour longer than you did last night, and stay in the moment of what went wrong. While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries.”
While memoirs still aren’t really my thing, and there were certain chapters that were clearly inferior to others, Lab Girl is a remarkable tale about life, science, and love.