Hope Jahren announces at the start of her award-winning memoir “Lab Girl” (2016) that “people are like plants; they grow towards the light.” As she rolls out the story of her rural Minnesota childhood, we understand how she chose science as her path, as the safe place to be. She had a “deep orphan-pain” from her repressed mother and the “silent togetherness” of her Swedish-American family. The joy in her childhood came every day after school when she went to the college where her father taught, and for hours the two of them prepared the experiments, demonstrations and equipment for the following day’s classes. In the silence of the building, “he was the king and she was the prince.”
Jahren was praised as a schoolgirl for her performance in the sciences, yet during college and graduate work, she was shocked by the demeaning treatment she received as a female from the male biologists, often overhearing crude comments about her gender through the office walls. She now views that consciousness as an opportunity—since no one really knew what a female scientist was, she made it up as she went along.
Toward the end of her PhD work as an assistant in undergrad courses, she identified a disheveled loner named Bill as being exceptionally bright and determined. Something in the energy and curiosity of this oddball clicked with Hope, and Bill became her right-hand man from then on. Throughout the early years, she found small lab spaces in which to work, Bill literally camped out in corners at night, and the two fueled each other with energy and creativity in their research. Their verbal sparring frequently lifts the story to hilarious heights.
Jahren scatters specific information about the trees and plants, seeds and roots she studies amongst the events of her life. These breaks, though sometimes hard for the layman to follow, contain fascinating information about plant life around us. They also bring a special richness to the book with their hint at how much all living things have in common.
Jahren succeeded in becoming a true scientist—one who develops her own experiments rather than conducts those of others—and thereby, becomes one who “generates wholly new knowledge.” Yet this type of science, which is sometimes called “curiosity-driven research,” only exists when it’s funded by the National Science Foundation, so a life of science means a life of constant worry about money. Readers know that Jahren hopes we voters are listening carefully.
After only a chapter or two, I started identifying girls or young women I know who might be inspired by this engaging memoir. With Jahren’s warning that trees are being wiped from the earth and we are in big trouble, I am hoping that there are a lot more budding scientists out there, ready to dig in.