Lab Girl (Jahren)

Lab Girl 
Hope Jahren, 2016
Knopf Doubleday
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781101873724

An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world.
Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together.

It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal.

Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth— September 27, 1969
Where—Austin, Minnesota, USA
Education—B.S., University of Minnesota; Ph.D, University of California-Berkeley
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in Manoa, Hawaii

Hope Jahren is an American geochemist and geobiologist at the University of Hawaii, known for her work using stable isotope analysis to analyze fossil forests dating to the Eocene. She has won many prestigious awards in the field, including the James B. Macelwane Medal of the American Geophysical Union. Her book Lab Girl (2016) has been applauded as both "a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world" and a literary fusion of memoir and science writing.

Early life and education
Jahren was born in Austin, Minnesota. Her father taught a physics and earth science at a community college and encouraged her play in the laboratory. Her mother, a student of English literature, nurtured in her daughter a love of reading.

Jahren completed her undergraduate education in geology at the University of Minnesota, graduating cum laude in 1991. She earned her Ph.D in 1996 at the University of California-Berkeley in the field of soil science. Her dissertation covered the formation of biominerals in plants and used novel stable isotope methods to examine the processes.

Career and research
From 1996 to 1999, she was an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology where she conducted pioneering research on paleoatmospheres using fossilized plants. She discovered the second methane hydrate release event that occurred 117 million years ago.

From 1999 to 2008, worked at Johns Hopkins University where she received media attention for her work with the fossil forests of Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's Arctic Ocean. Her studies of the trees allowed her to estimate the environmental conditions on the island 45 million years ago. She and her collaborators analyzed depletion of oxygen isotopes to determine the weather patterns there that allowed large Metasequoia forests to flourish during the Eocene.

Her research at Johns Hopkins also included the first extraction and analysis of DNA found in paleosol (old soil) and the first discovery of stable isotopes existing in a multicellular organism's DNA.

Jahren is currently a full professor at the University of Hawaii. Her research there focuses on using stable isotope analysis to determine characteristics of the environment on different timescales.

Honors and awards
Jahren has received three Fulbright Awards: in 1992 for geology work conducted in Norway, in 2003 for environmental science work conducted in Denmark, and in 2010 for arctic science work conducted in Norway.

In 2001, Jahren won the Donath Medal, awarded by the Geological Society of America. In 2005, she was awarded the Macelwane Medal, becoming the first woman and fourth scientist overall to win both the Macelwane Medal and the Donath Medal. Jahren was profiled by Popular Science magazine in 2006 as one of its "Brilliant 10" scientists. She was a 2013 Leopold Fellow at Stanford University's Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Support for science awareness
Jahren is an advocate in raising public awareness of science. Her interview on MSNBC credits her as one of many scientist working to lift the stereotype surrounding women and girls in science.

She happened upon #ManicureMondays after a laboratory incident, and decided to share it with fellow scientists through a tweet. Seventeen magazine originally came up with the idea, but focused mainly on manicured and painted fingernails. Jahren decided that she wanted to share what she thought was fun, important and most of all involved the use of her hands. She encouraged fellow scientist; specifically girls to tweet pictures of their hands conducting scientific experiments. The idea was to raise awareness of science research as well as of women working in science.

In addition to her deep appreciation of the joys of science Jahren has written compellingly about the sexual harassment of women in science. She recommends that people draw strong professional boundaries, and that they carefully document what occurs, beginning with the first occasion of harassment.

Jahren is married to Clint Conrad, a fellow scientist. They live in Manoa, Hawaii, and have a son. Their dog Coco is the 2nd place Amateur long-jump Dockdog in the state of Hawaii. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 4/17/2016.)

Visit the author's blog.

Book Reviews
This book is an embarrassment of riches; Hope Jahren is a gifted botanist as well as a gifted writer. In Lab Girl the reader gets to experience the stressful, competitive world of a research scientist trying to survive in academia while also navigating becoming a wife and eventually a mother, all while managing what is often a debilitating mental illness.… This is a book you won’t want to miss — her blog is every bit as entertaining and well written as  Lab Girl; you can find her at READ MORE …
Cara Kless - LitLovers

Vladimir Nabokov once observed that "a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist." The geobiologist Hope Jahren possesses both in spades. Her engrossing new memoir, Lab Girl, is at once a thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher's road map to the secret lives of plants—a book that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks's essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould's writings did for paleontology.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Large numbers amaze; numbers of large numbers amaze even more. Cognitive neuroscience can explain why…but it takes a passionate geobiologist with the soul of a poet to make us really swoon in the face of computational amplitude. Science is in the end a love affair with numbers, and when it comes to botany, the "numbers are staggering," Hope Jahren writes in her spirited account of how she became an eminent research scientist.... Jahren's literary bent renders dense material digestible, and lyrical, in fables that parallel personal history.... [She] deliver[s] a gratifying and often moving chronicle of the scientist's life.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson - New York Times Book Review

Jahren grew up in small-town Minnesota, playing in her father’s science lab and laboring in her mother’s garden. Her first book invites readers to fall in love, as she did, with science and plants. The award-winning scientist travels the world studying trees with her best friend and lab partner, and finds refuge from life’s conflicts in the lab. "There I transformed from a girl into a scientist, just like Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, only kind of backward," she writes.
Jennifer Maloney - Wall Street Journal

A scientific memoir that’s beautifully human. Jahren, a geochemist, botanist and geobiologist, has spent the better part of the past two decades studying the secret lives of plants. Part memoir, part biology text, part criticism of the status quo of the scientific community, Lab Girl reminds us that, in ways, we are strikingly like our blossoming brethren. Lab Girl is anything but technical. It is full of pleasing turns of phrase, references to literary figures like Genet and Dickens, and a running botany allusion that punctuates the book’s biographical story. Most of all, it’s deeply personal, following Jahren’s battle with manic depression; a harrowing pregnancy; her unending struggle to secure funding in a quickly drying financial desert; and the loving platonic relationship she shares with her protege and lab manager, Bill.
Melissa Cronin - Popular Science

Warm, witty.... Lab Girl is her recounting of the near half century of adventures, setbacks, and detours that brought her from there to here. But even more than that, it’s a fascinating portrait of her engagement with the natural world: she investigates everything from the secret life of cacti to the tiny miracles encoded in an acorn seed, studding her observations with memorable sentences.... Jahren’s singular gift is her ability to convey the everyday wonder of her work: exploring the strange, beautiful universe of living things that endure and evolve and bloom all around us, if we bother to look.
Leah Greenblatt - Entertainment Weekly

Deeply affecting.... a totally original work, both fierce and uplifting: a biologist’s natural history of her subjects, and herself. In Lab Girl, pioneering geobiologist Jahren limns her journey [from] insecure young scientist [to] medals and professional and personal fulfillment. Jahren recognized as an undergrad that science would be her true home—a place of safety, warmth, and light [where] she could be part of something larger than herself. A belletrist in the mold of Oliver Sacks, she is terrific at showing just how science is done. But her prose reaches another dimension when she describes her remarkable relationship with a lab guy, an undergraduate loner named Bill.... Jahren’s writing is precise, as befits a scientist who also loves words. She’s an acute observer, prickly—and funny as hell.
Elizabeth Royte - Elle

(Starred review.) Jahren...recounts her unfolding journey to discover “what it’s like to be a plant” in this darkly humorous, emotionally raw, and exquisitely crafted memoir.... For Jahren, a life in science yields the gratification of asking, knowing, and telling; for the reader, the joy is in hearing about the process as much as the results.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Jahren's first book is a refreshing mix of memoir about her journey as a woman scientist and musings about plants, the central focus of her successful scientific endeavors. What's most refreshing is the author's openness about her relationship and collaboration with research partner Bill. —Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis
Library Journal

(Starred review.) [A] personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.... The author's tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and [her lab partner] Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist. Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add the publisher's questions if and when they're made available. In the meantime, use these LitLovers talking points to start a discussion for Lab Girl...then take off on your own:

1. How did Jahren's upbringing help determine her dedication to science? Consider her father's background as a science teacher and her mother's love of English literature.

2. One of the literary tropes Jahren uses in her memoir is the comparison of plant life with human life. Talk about the parallels she draws between her subjects and herself. In what ways are we all similar to our rooted, blossoming brethren? Do you see those parallels in your own life?

3. What do you find most remarkable in Jahren's descriptions of the wonders of the natural world? Consider, for instance, the sheer numbers of the plant world. Or how the willow tree clones itself...or the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi...or the airborne signals of trees in their perennial war against insects.

4. Talk about Jahren's struggle with manic depression and how it has affected her life and work.

5. How would you describe Jahren's relationship with her lab partner Bill? What makes both professional and personal relationship work?

6. Describe some of the hardships that make life difficult for any scientist — bucking the status quo, the often endless waiting for results, the grunt work, or the scarcity of funding. Also, talk about the masculine culture Jahren faced as a woman scientist.

7. Will you ever take a tree—or any plant life—for granted again?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2020