Book Review: Lab Girl

BookReviewLogoReview by Sarah Parker.

People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be (18).

25733983It would be misleading to describe Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) as a “debut” work. Jahren has been the recipient of numerous academic accolades, including three Fulbright Awards, and she has been published several dozen times prior to the recent appearance of this memoir. Academic publications by definition have a limited and elite readership of specialists, though. In Lab Girl, Jahren opens up to a much broader audience the fields of geobiology and paleontology, fields whose very names can intimidate us with the reminder of our small and yet terrifyingly destructive place in the long course of our planet’s history. The book develops an extended metaphor relating Jahren’s accomplishments and setbacks to the obstacles that plants face in their struggle for survival and their attempts to flourish. Jahren’s in-depth knowledge of the evolutionary history of plants rescues this metaphor from cliché and instead introduces the reader to a complex botanical world of which most of us are shamefully oblivious: “As a rule, people live among plants, but they don’t really see them” (3).

These plants are Jahren’s passion. She examines their history, teases apart their inner workings, and considers them as actors in a world that has become increasingly hostile to their success.  The result is the fascinating personal story of a woman who made it in a world dominated by men, a wonderfully wacky tale of Jahren’s friendship with her lifelong lab manager Bill, and a surprising paradigm shift in the way that we think about plants.

Beginning with her childhood in the Midwest, where she spent time in her father’s lab at the local community college, Jahren shares her successes and failures with the reader in an engaging prose style that is alternately laugh-out-loud funny and sharply poignant. For example, Jahren tells the reader of her discovery about the content of ancient hackberry tree seeds when working on her dissertation. She muses that most would probably find this “either trivial or profoundly dull” (72). For her, though, it signals the beginning of a new path in life as a researcher:

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. […] Until I phoned someone, the concrete knowledge that opal was the mineral that fortified each seed on each hackberry tree was mine alone. […] I stood and absorbed this revelation as my life turned a page, and my first scientific discovery shone, as even the cheapest plastic toy does when it is new. […] I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn (71-72).

In this passage, which captures that alternating sense of profound importance and miniscule relevance that every researcher feels at some point, Jahren shows how the work of science is not as clear cut as we sometimes make it out to be. While many outside of science see it as a field that will nobly lead the way into the future, solving any problem that we humans create, Jahren shows us the scrappy side of scientific discovery. Scientists spend their entire lives working, but they never finish their work or perfect their research techniques. Narrating a trip to scoop up the laboratory materials that her mentor, Ed, had no further need for upon his retirement, Jahren muses,

The purpose instead was for me to stand on the rock that he had thrown into the rushing river, bend and claw another rock from the bottom, and then cast it down a bit further and hope it would be a useful next step for some person with whom Providence might allow me to cross paths. Until then I would keep our beakers, thermometers, electrodes in my care, hoping against hope that not all of it would be garbage upon my own retirement (189-190).

In keeping with this true-to-life representation of scientific work, Jahren confronts head-on some of the most pressing issues that scientists in the United States are currently facing:

You may have heard that America doesn’t have enough scientists and is in danger of ‘falling behind’ (whatever that means) because of it. Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh. For the last thirty years, the amount of the U.S. annual budget that goes to non-defense-related research has been frozen. From a purely budgetary perspective, we don’t have too few scientists, we’ve got far too many, and we keep graduating more each year. America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it. Within environmental science in particular, we see the crippling effects that come from having been resource-hobbled for decades: degrading farmland, species extinction, progressive deforestation… The list goes on and on (123).

She concludes this sobering picture with, “Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: ‘Money’” (125). These concerns about money are especially personal for Jahren because of the fact that her closest friend, Bill, is also her lab assistant. A year without grant money or a year with no funding means that she can’t pay Bill to do the work that she knows he will insist on doing regardless. At one point, Bill is homeless and living out of a van and then out of an abandoned office in an old university building. Jahren illustrates to readers outside of academia that the notion of the privileged “ivory tower” life couldn’t be further from the truth.

Despite its somewhat facile title, Lab Girl does not hesitate to speak out about the sexism that women continue to face in academia, especially in the sciences. Jahren’s first scientific discovery occurs after midnight because of her desire to avoid a “creepy post-doc who worked in that lab” (70). While a young professor at Georgia Tech, she has to move from the tree-filled countryside into Atlanta because of vague harassment from her landlord and a neighbor (130-131). At one point her department chair, disturbed to find a tired, pregnant Jahren in the campus office, tells her husband to tell her not to come around campus until after her delivery. His excuse: liability. She wonders, “half of these guys are drunk in their offices… and hitting on students… and I’m the liability?” (216). Jahren is careful not to make dogmatic, sweeping generalizations about the topic of women in STEM, but in sharing her stories, she lends encouragement to readers who have experienced similar setbacks. As she puts it, “In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possible be what you are. ‘And you don’t do yourself any damn favors by going around in pigtails and stained T-shirts,’ Bill reminds me whenever I affect an air of persecution, and I must concede his point” (182-183).

Lab Girl addresses a number of issues that will be of particular interest to MedHum readers. She gives harrowing descriptions of the electric euphoria and devastating crashes that characterize her experience with manic depression. She does not mince words when describing the challenges of pregnancy and delivery that she faced as a result, since pregnant women are not advised to continue regular pharmaceuticals. While it is easy to explain this logically in terms of the baby’s safety, Jahren illustrates the kind of mental torture that this experience entails. She goes on to describe in detail her delivery in a teaching hospital, and she manages to critique the dehumanizing experience of being the patient under scrutiny even as she, as a scientist, remains sympathetic to the institution’s pedagogical aims.

Jahren has made it her life’s mission to “think like a plant,” and her research demonstrates that plants are not passive or helpless because of their immobility but instead have the power to change their environments. This thread in the book will be of interest to readers interested in the influence of posthumanist theory on the history of science and medicine. If you found works like Latour’s Pasteurization of France or Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump interesting, you will certainly enjoy Jahren’s accessible description of how this kind of thinking is currently energizing her field. Similarly, if you enjoyed Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, you owe this book a read. Where Pollan is journalist cleverly assembling the research of others, in Jahren’s book we get a scientist who has honed the art of writing to tell us about her own exciting findings. This book makes complex scientific concepts and research techniques accessible to readers, even those who might otherwise be intimidated by scientific subjects. If you are looking for the perfect holiday gift for a recent high school graduate starting a science major, or a college student considering a PhD in STEM, this is it.

Parker, Sarah - headshotSarah Parker is Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville University, Florida where she teaches courses in Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, and medical humanities. Her current research focuses on early modern medical treatises on popular errors. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UNC-Chapel Hill and MAs from UNC-Chapel Hill and Middlebury College.

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