Book review: ‘Lab Girl,’ by Hope Jahren
July 29, 2016
The eyes of the scientific community are often fixated on the flash and thrill of those disciplines that are seen as sexy or which make for good publicity — namely, all things relating to space exploration, man's origins or groundbreaking medical discoveries.
Studying the state of the Earth's plant life can be less invigorating and more like, well, watching the grass grow. But as earth scientist and author Hope Jahren explains in her hugely popular memoir "Lab Girl," the study of an Earth nurtured and supported by all things green and growing is, for her, a deeply primal need, evoking subconscious feelings of comfort and a connectivity to the world in which she lives.
Jahren grew up surrounded by science and exploration at her science teacher father's knee. She paints a mesmerizing picture of a childhood spent at his side, where the smells, sounds and tactile memories of the local community college science lab steeped into her being. A three-time Fulbright award recipient and voted as one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People," Jahren clearly has taken her parents' commitment to learning to heart.
"Lab Girl" pivots between fascinating descriptors of the lives and loves of plants and Jahren's account of her rural upbringing in Minnesota in a small community of comfortable silences, bred from its prominent Scandinavian stoicism. This calm sobriety of the town's population served her well in the long, cold winters, which dominate much of Jahren's memories, for Minnesota is famed for its bitter temperatures that linger for months. Thus the verdant days of summer were all the more precious, as they were fleeting and short, and thus the growing of things green and lush captured her fascination.
Outdoor and lab life
"Lab Girl," which is essentially an homage to the study of science as a passion, proves to be a remarkably elegant read, filled with many references to literature, which is fitting, as that is the realm in which Jahren began her college career. The book is marked with humor and deep insight into the many fits and starts throughout her life that led her to her career. Charmingly, the choices she made along the way are given botanical metaphors. She compares the lifespan of a tree to that of a person, their journeys marked by distinct growth patterns during different times of their lives. And Jahren was well aware that commencing a journey in science as a female was loaded with risk and certain disappointment. "No risk is more terrifying than one taken by the first root."
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The vivid pictures she paints of plants carrying on the task of living are captivating, as are the recollections she shares of her own life unfurling before her. The book unfolds like a plant reaching for the sun, with Jahren's past reflected in the lifecycle of a plant. She compares her unlikely ascension in the scientific community within academia to the survival of an invasive species. Being a woman, she knew "that female professors are the natural enemies of the academic world."
Lucky for her, Jahren found support early on in the form of a lab assistant who becomes her equivalent to Bill Bryson's Stephen Katz from "A Walk in the Woods."
Unconventional, Bill becomes a central character in her narrative, a foil to her manic seriousness, and she writes of him fondly, comparing their unique decades-long bond to that of "12-year-old fraternal twins." It is her scientific journey with Bill at her side that fuels the charm and humor that makes "Lab Girl" great fun to read. She personalizes the world of scientific research, humanizing the notion of the incredible minds of science that strive to help advance man's understanding and wonder of the world.