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).
It 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).