Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

In Love with the Lab: A Review of “Lab Girl”

Posted in Books: Past and Present, Personalities in Science on April 26, 2016 by Barbara Thiers

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.

Lab Girl By Hope Jahren Knopf
Cover image via Knopf

Hope Jahren, the author of the new memoir Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2016), calls herself a geobiologist. A geologist by training, she mostly studies how soil, water, and climate affect plant growth. After working at a variety of universities, she is currently at the University of Hawaii. In her spare time, she is an active blogger, mostly writing about “interactions between women and men and Academia.”

Lab Girl begins with Hope’s childhood in a small town in southern Minnesota, where her family had lived for generations. Her childhood home life was stable, although her parents were very reserved and Hope received little outward affection from them. Formatively, she spent evenings with her father in his chemistry lab at the local junior college where he taught. From this experience, she developed a love for the order and purposefulness of a laboratory as a venue for discovery and wonder.

The book chronicles Hope’s journey from undergraduate to graduate student, to struggling young professional researcher, and ultimately to successful and acclaimed leader in her field. Many aspects of this story will be familiar, painfully so, to those who began their scientific careers toward the end of the 20th century and also struggled with acceptance by colleagues, the never-ending grind of raising money, institutional politics, and the careful time-management required (especially for women) to balance family and career. Sexism enters the picture, of course, but in describing this, along with the other challenges she has faced, Hope is matter-of-fact and without self-pity. Her creative energy and desire to succeed sometimes outstripped her emotional strength, but she has found a control regimen that seems to keep her balanced.

The book is a love story—about her love of family, of plants, of dreaming up questions to be answered through observation and experimentation, of equipment both shiny and new and old and repurposed, of mentors and of being a mentor. Above all, it is about the love of professional partnership.

Although Hope has a husband and son whom she cherishes, the central love story of the book is between Hope and her research colleague Bill, whom she met as a graduate student and who has worked for her ever since. Bill is as quirky as they come but is completely devoted to Hope and the science they do together. In the early years, Bill worked for her for almost no salary, living either in his car or in the lab during the worst of times.

The longevity and intensity of their relationship is unusual in my experience, but the professional affection they feel for one another is very familiar. There is a distinct type of love that develops among colleagues who have served together in the field, in the lab, on research projects or professional committees and who recognize in one another the same commitment and yearning. One can find (reserved) expressions of this love in many a retirement tribute and obituary, but we rarely take the time to acknowledge it formally during our careers. We express it mostly through hugs of greetings or goodbyes, over a late night beer at a conference hotel bar, or through a congratulatory email or social media shout-out on the occasion of a successful grant proposal or a promotion. Others who recognize this type of love will probably be as grateful as I am to Hope for documenting it, even though we may never discuss it as openly as she does.

What pleases me about this book as much as the narrative of Hope’s career and what she reveals about her relationships are the interspersed stories of plant life. She uses a technique that reminds me of how Robin Kimmerer, in her book Gathering Moss, intertwined her own life story with that of the bryophytes she studied. Lab Girl is divided into three parts: Roots and Leaves, Wood and Knots, and Flowers and Fruits, and the chapters in each alternate between expositions on some aspect of plant life—such as adaptation to drought, overwintering, or fruit structure—with the story of her life.

The plant stories are beautifully crafted. She writes in a chapter about new leaves: “Folded within the embryo are the cotyledons: two tiny ready-made leaflets, inflatable for temporary use. They are as small and insufficient as the spare tire that is not intended to take you any farther than the nearest gas station. Once expanded with sap, these barely green cotyledons start photosynthesis like an old car on a bitter winter morning.”

Much as fellow scientists will enjoy this memoir, Hope has her sights on a broader audience. I hope she finds it for her sake and for ours. I hope the book touches people who have a stereotyped view of science and scientists and are unaware of the sacrifices willingly made for non-monetary rewards. I hope that even the most science-unfriendly reader may be moved by the beauty of her prose and artfulness of her storytelling. I hope above all that readers not previously inclined to see plants as anything other than background will take at least a moment to wonder at their complicated and dynamic lives and appreciate that our lives are completely dependent on theirs.