Review of Lab Girl: a story of how and why science and plants excite us, told through a resoundingly human lens

IMG_1293In Lab Girl, Hope Jahren weaves a tale of wonder and passion mixed with struggle. Her story is painful at times; just when it’s about to become a tear-jerker, she softens the tone by shifting to a vivid description of how plants navigate the world. Human problems then seem infinitesimally small in comparison. Jahren’s narrative weaves in and out between her life and the lives of plants, bringing a surreal, almost fairy-tale quality to the story.  Yet, because the scenes and inner-workings of what she relates are heartbreakingly honest, Lab Girl also takes on a raw quality that anyone who is familiar with human struggle will be able to relate to.

The over-arching theme of plants, how they grow, survive, reproduce, and defend themselves parallels Jahren’s own struggles to grow up, prosper in male-centric academia, slog through a difficult pregnancy, and somehow come out the other side, confident in herself and hopeful for what life will unfold for her next.

Lab Girl opens with Jahren as a girl. She spends her free time in her father’s laboratory, a formative starting point that launches the trajectory of her path in life. There she recognizes that doing science will be a necessity, that it will motivate her existence. This kind of fundamental dedication should inspire all of us. From her deeply-rooted passion, Jahren conveys her respect for the scientific process, for the tools and equipment that make new discoveries possible, and for the blood, sweat and tears that drive the work from start to finish. Many scientists would do well to pause a moment to appreciate these things that Jahren so eloquently describes as part of a delicate and methodical dance, a calming rhythm that affords escape from worry through the simplicity of edging towards the goal of finishing a set of measurements.

Jahren’s pursuit of research was not without intense emotional hardship, as she will tell you frankly. She describes how she doesn’t quite fit into society as a traditional woman, but also how she doesn’t quite fit into her own professional world – an awkward feeling that probably more than a few of us can relate to. Early in her career, Jahren manages to create an existence that sounds tedious at best. She stays true to her passion, and eventually succeeds in carving out a more comfortable niche. Her greatest asset in all of this is her technician, Bill.

Jahren and Bill develop a true and lasting partnership that seems rare in the sciences, and in life. Most of us know that it’s impossible to do science alone. These days, collaborations are almost essential because national funding pools have shrunk to alarmingly small puddles (Jahren will give you some details on pages 122-125). Jahren hits on a different aspect of collaborative relationships that isn’t mentioned often, which is steadfast emotional support. A true partner is there to tell you that together you’ll overcome all obstacles: when you lose your way and you’re not sure if you can finish the work, or if you can solve the problem at hand. When a partner is truly by your side, his or her confidence leaks into your full self and you actually do feel that you can accomplish anything through the synergism that you’ve created together.

Bill stays by Jahren’s side through all the ups and downs, a champion of loyalty, even living in his car when there’s no funding for his salary. Jahren is lucky and she knows it. Bill is at the heart of all of her science; it’s hard to imagine it existing without him. There are countless “Bills” out there, people who truly make science happen. Sadly, so many of these people go un-recognized and even un-thanked for their extraordinary efforts. Jahren does all of them a service, by telling her own story and giving Bill a leading role in it.

We are privileged to see the world through Jahren’s eyes. Lab Girl will resonate with any audience, with those who already knew or haven’t yet realized that they were interested in natural science. I eagerly await her next tale.

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Update (October 6, 2016): Check out this great interview with Hope on why she wrote the book.

The true value of scientific meetings

Scientific meetings (conferences) (see: Nature Events Directory for a great comprehensive current listing) are critical tools that facilitate scientific progress. Meetings are a great way to transfer knowledge among professionals first hand and in large quantities. They contribute to the gray literature and provide up-to-date research to an entire community that develops and uses this information. Meeting attendees establish long-lasting professional connections that lead to career-advancing opportunities. Meetings establish a friendly interface between research and its applications. It is critical that once scientific findings arrive on the scene, they are actually used where they are needed. Meetings also provide personal connections for like-minded introverted people.  The energy at meetings is often palpable: people get excited about science by seeing it, talking about it, and thinking about it in new ways (see Nature Plants, 2, 16127 for another perspective). This makes for a nice break from daily life in the lab or the field or the office, all of which often involve obstacles arising constantly, followed by endless creative problem-solving and red-tape navigation. In short, meetings set up a global network of collaborations, communication, and cutting-edge knowledge.

Meetings can supply another crucial need to the scientific community – one that isn’t mentioned so often. I think meetings should, and for some people they do (including myself), function as emotional support systems. I think they can do that if they foster a strong sense of community. Forest Entomology meetings are an excellent example of this. Forest Entomologists meet frequently, at least annually (some meetings are biannual), and most members of the discipline attend regularly. At each of the regional (and national) meetings, time within the scientific program is set aside for social engagement. In addition to field trips, long coffee breaks, banquet dinners, and social mixers in the evening or during poster sessions, which are present at most meetings, there is also time scheduled for competitive social activities (cleverly named after insect pests).  These friendly competitions help to engage all participants, especially the shy introverts and newcomers (libations help), which creates an informal atmosphere conducive to establishing personal relationships.

Last summer, I was invited by a forward-thinking graduate student to give a talk at one of these regional meetings (Southern Forest Insect Work Conference 2015) on my experience as a woman in science.  There were many topics that came to mind as I prepared my talk. But what I couldn’t seem to get around was the idea that I had so many people to thank for my accomplishments. Many of those people would be sitting in the audience at that conference. Many of them had been present at meetings throughout my professional development from shy and awkward student, to excited and motivated postdoc, to seasoned postdoc. Those people will likely be present at meetings for all or most of my career trajectory. While presence and consistency is important, there is so much more to it than that.  At nearly every meeting I have attended I have asked for and received advice on one or more of the following: presentation skills, scientific writing skills, career choices, potential jobs, research ideas, teaching philosophy, peer-review philosophy, personal relationships, working relationships, recreation spots and/or activities. Where else can you get all of that in one place? Meetings are a gold mine of information, and not all of it is what you get is what you might have expected at the outset.

I conducted a survey to find out what people thought about the idea of meetings as support systems. I promoted it through the Entomological Society of America blog (Entomology Today), and my personal Facebook page, so many of the participants were Entomologists or Ecologists. Among all 1148 respondents, 51% thought meetings should provide emotional support, yet only 35% thought that meetings actually do serve this purpose. Compared to other disciplines, more folks (12-21% more) in Forest Entomology felt that conferences actually do provide emotional support. The small size of the Forest Entomology community relative to the others may make it easier for people to establish professional relationships that are more personal in nature. Or maybe Forest Entomologists make more of an effort than other disciplines to create a warm and accepting community by encouraging social interactions at small meetings that re-convene often (See Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology 7, 231-234 for another perspective on small vs. large meetings).

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When I see my colleagues struggling to attend meetings regularly, whether it is due to lack of funding or permission from their employer, I worry not only about the obvious consequences for communication and collaboration; more than that, I worry what this does to the strength of our scientific community.  From our day-to-day challenges to the trajectory of our entire careers, we are first and foremost people, and we need the emotional support of other people who face similar challenges. Meetings can provide this support. And they should strive to do so.