"Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love" by Hope Jahren - a reflection and review

A Reflection

Yesterday, I read the last couple of chapters of Lab Girl, which I've slowly been working my way through over the past few weeks. I've been chipping away at it one or two chapters at a time. It's the first book I've read strictly for pleasure in a very long time - mainly because I feel guilty if I'm not reading literature associated with my research - and what a pleasure it was! I didn't even feel guilty because it's partly educational. Even though it wasn't directly related to entomology, it was very much a book about being a scientist, a woman, a friend, a wife, a mother, and everything else that fits into my blog's "life in general" category.

I experienced the gamut of emotions while reading the book, but if I had to choose only one feeling to focus on it would have to be:

panic.

Jahren's roller-coaster ride through life is awe-inspiring but also made me hit my panic button as I mapped out my life thus far and the next few years. I get as far as 2020, however, and after that there is a great big question mark. I'll be 42 by the time (I think) I'll be finished my postgraduate research degree/s, which is perhaps fitting given that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is 42.

You see, I started on this science journey in 2010, at the age of 32, when I commenced my Bachelor of Zoology (Animal Ecology) undergraduate degree. I guess 10 years to a PhD, if everything goes according to plan, isn't too shabby - but it's the 14 years between leaving high school and starting on my path to entomology that I lament. I wish I had known sooner but hindsight has the benefit of having 20/20 vision. I just didn't know I wanted to embark on this science journey until I was in my early 30s.

And, if Jahren's memoir has reinforced one thing, it's that we have to be relentless in carving out our futures: digging away at materials that some days can feel like dry sand - always falling back in on us; or granite - almost impossible to chip away at, especially if we don't have the best tools for the job. Other days it can feel like clay or quicksand or molten rock, while some days - just some days - it can feel like the lightest, fluffiest soil that barely makes us break a sweat. Whatever metaphorical material we're carving our way through, though, there will always be something we can't shift and we'll just have to go around it, so the path isn't going to be a straight line.

As scientists, we not only have to work hard and prove our worth to what seems to be an increasingly scientifically-illiterate (or distrustful) public, we have to accept that the pool of research money is drying up more and more each year while, paradoxically, the number of scientists competing for that funding is only becoming bigger. Less money for more people.

And scientists are also real people, so we have all the other up and downs that life throws at us to deal with as well.

I wonder if I have it in me to be that relentless. I guess I just have to keep going, and maybe I'll run out of puff or maybe I won't.

Watch this space.


A Review

Jahren's engaging memoir not only allows us to ride along with her on her personal journey, it also allows us to appreciate the natural world though her eyes

Roots and leaves, wood and knots, flowers and fruit. These words may not light a fire in your belly, but they embody everything that makes Hope Jahren tick. As you read her words, you will be opened up to a world you have barely noticed before, and plants and all their parts will cease to be a quiet, green background to life - they will come to life with a mighty roar; their hopeful patience a lesson for us all.

Jahren's passion for the natural world is infectious and her sheer determination to establish and fund her own research laboratory is nothing short of inspiring. But her journey has been neither straight nor smooth, which is a lesson for us all. Her research has included plants both alive and long dead, and she has extracted information from their fossilised tissues to shed light on the environmental conditions that existed when they were living organisms. For those of you who are not familiar with the world of academia, however, the reality is that you may have to turn your hand to projects outside of your preferred area when research funding is scarce, and Jahren dabbled in forensic techniques on occasion, which is only one example of her uncanny ability to create her own opportunities. Scientists have to be flexible.

Her childhood was spent in rural Minnesota in a silent Scandinavian family:

When I was a child, I assumed that the whole world acted like we did, and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who effortlessly gave each other simple warmth and casual affection that I had craved for so long. I then had to learn to live in a world where when people don't talk to each other, it is because they don't know each other, not because they do.

From this silent beginning, though, Jahren paints a remarkable picture. Her father, a science teacher, lit the fire in her belly that set her on a path to becoming a scientist. His laboratory was her playground growing up, but she knew it wasn't filled with kids' toys - they were "serious things for grown ups", and as a child her father taught her how to pull things apart to see how they work and then put them back together again, "so that as they inevitably failed [she'd] be able to restore them". Science and play were intermingled. Jahren's mother, an English Literature graduate, instilled in her daughter a love of reading and writing, and this becomes evident from the first chapter of the memoir. Jahren's prose is almost poetic, and the way her words, sentences and paragraphs flow makes every chapter both instantly engaging and incredibly easy to absorb.

As I mentioned in my reflection above, scientists are also people, so Jahren's memoir is equal measure of science and humanity, and she has a distinctive way of writing about both. In one chapter we are engrossed as she explains the process of using the mass spectrometer as a scientific scale; in another she describes her battle with bipolar disorder in painfully exquisite detail. In one chapter she explains how plants transpire; in another she tells us about the birth of her son and how "a bucketful of now-useless placental chum" was afterwards massaged out of her abdomen.

Woven throughout her memoir is a sense of loneliness. Indeed, the life of a scientist can be somewhat lonely and, in Jahren's case, it appears to be a result of her sheer determination to set up her own research laboratory and fund it by constantly applying for grants. She sees it as her responsibility, along with educating and mentoring the members of her lab, and sometimes paying their salary. Not only do others depend on the success of her lab, she does as well because for her it is "home".

She is not alone, however. Early on we are introduced to Bill who becomes her lab manager. Bill is very much a central part of the memoir: he is there for every field trip, every lab experiment, every move to a new university. In his own quirky way, Bill provides support when things go wrong and when funding is scarce. It is a really beautiful relationship.

Also evident throughout the memoir is the challenge faced by Jahren of being a woman in science. While she doesn't dwell on it, the topic raises its head every now and then to remind us that - once again - scientists are real people and they feel emotion. She is surrounded by male colleagues and keenly feels the absence of female role models. When Jahren goes on medical leave due to complications while pregnant, her husband Clint passes on a message from her boss which effectively bans her from entering her own lab because of "some bullshit about liability and insurance". Feeling utterly betrayed by this second-hand news, Jahren hurls her empty coffee cup at the floor with all her strength.

It bounces on the carpet and does not break but instead rocks itself into a smug and leisurely sideways pose. In it I see yet more evidence of my powerlessness, even over things small and meaningless, and I sit down, put my head in my hands, and sob onto my desk.

That sense of betrayal and the death of their affection for that university would be the catalyst for Jahren and her husband gathering their loved ones and few belongings before moving to another university thousands of miles away, where she would have to build up her lab from zero.

Plants play a prominent roles and are interwoven throughout the memoir because not only are they important to Jahren, they are also important to all of us - whether or not we realise it. Plants dominate the Earth and, on land, the ratio of plant to animal life is about a thousand to one. If a central theme had to be identified, however, it is survival. Only five percent of seeds will ever germinate and, of these, only five percent will celebrate their first birthday. The odds are stacked against them from the beginning but, despite this, some grow to maturity and reproduce. Mirroring this to some extent is Jahren's roller-coatser ride through life and, despite her own set-backs, she also survives to fight another day for trees, for science, and for love.