4 September 2016
Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, is a unique memoir. It describes Jahren’s journey through life from her childhood in the frigid northern Midwest to her eventual success as a celebrated scientist and an original thinker. The first thing you should know about it is that it is exceptionally well written (Hope Jahren Sure Can Write, after all) – evocative with joy and pathos and well articulated anxiety and the deep, mindless satisfaction of true friendship. The friendship, with her lab manager Bill, is the unexpected theme of the book. I had expected the childhood stories of becoming interested in science, and I had expected anecdotes of the challenges of making one’s way in academia as a woman. But I hadn’t expected the heartfelt, poignant revelation of her deep, fraternal connection to Bill. It shines through the book as the most profound relationship in her life, connected essentially with her very nature as a scientist. Her relationship with her husband in contrast, while described in clearly adoring terms, falls into the shadow relative to the book’s depiction of her relationship with Bill. Their dialogue is a delightful repartee – a treat to read or listen to (I listened to the audiobook, read by Jahren herself, which I recommend). Another unexpected surprise was the eloquence with which Jahren described her bipolar disorder, starting (uniquely in my experience) with an “insider’s view” of a manic episode as manifested in the scientific method. It’s insightful, and unsettling.
Jahren works on plants as aspects of the geobiosphere. The biographical parts of the book are interspersed with short chapters devoted to the extraordinary abilities of plants, as viewed from the plants’ perspective. These chapters are interesting in their own right, but I think they really work well in the context of Jahren’s driving passions as a geobotanist, soil scientist, and geochemist. They illustrate the unique way she thinks about botanical and pedological systems – a mind free to ask questions that haven’t even occurred to anyone else. Jahren’s work has been recognized with several prestigious awards, including the James B. Macelwane Medal from AGU and the Donath Medal from GSA. She’s a decorated investigator, and appears to have near boundless energy for innovating in the mentorship of her students. That alone would be reason enough to motivate you to read her book – but it’s a really intense personal tale too, one which will resonate with almost everyone, and after all it’s told very well.