Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

lab girlAcclaimed scientist 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 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.

Part memoir, part reflection, part biology lesson, Lab Girl is unlike anything I’ve read this year. Hope Jahren is a unique woman, and her story, while sometimes not easy to read, is absorbing and fascinating in equal measures. Jahren mixes her personal narrative with insightful scientific interludes, with each science lesson relating to her life in some way. As I read further into the book, I found myself wishing that Jahren had been my science teacher at school, as her thoughtful discussions inspired me to learn more.

It’s disheartening to realize that the inherent sexism so prevalent in scientific fields remains a problem. While Jahren is able to recount numerous instances where her career has suffered due to her gender, I admired how she steamed past it and made her own best case scenario. She has not and will not let anything deter her from her work, including car accidents, violent storms and undeserving grad students. She doesn’t limit her outspokenness to this book; Jahren has published articles in the New York Times as recently as this year, outlining issues of harassment in science.

I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along. I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.

As fascinating as her science background is, Jahren’s frank discussion of her struggle with bipolar disorder, especially during her pregnancy, is equally absorbing. Her relationship with Bill – research partner, best friend, partner in crime and de facto older brother -is as important as her relationship with her husband, and he knows her as family, able to read the signs when she requires an intervention. Her honestly about her struggles with mental illness is intersperced with moments of sheer humour and delight, balancing some of the darker times in her life with self-deprication and light.

Lab Girl is a surprisingly delightful and absorbing read with a combination of fascinating scientific facts and personal anecdotes to connect Jahren’s personal life to her life’s work. She is a strong force of nature, and at times, you can see why she says that she won’t play the games necessary to get ahead in the academic world. You have to admire her passion and devotion to her world of study, especially as she draws you in with real-life botany references that beautifully correspond to her life experiences.

“Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

Lab Girl was published by Knopf, a division of Random House. A copy was provided by Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review. It is available now for purchase from your favourite online, big store or indie bookseller. ISBN: 9781101874936, 290 pages