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