Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl
Hope Jahren


Here’s a book I resisted reading for two reasons. First, there was so much hype about Lab Girl that I took a step back. When everyone gushes about a book, I feel as if the decision is already made that I have to like it. Stubborn as I am, I like to make my own decisions.

I also avoided Lab Girl because I am not a science person. I fulfilled my lab science in college (barely) and then moved on to English. Years later, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book about a scientist.

But then my book club friend chose Lab Girl and I committed to reading it.

So, wow. This book was excellent. Jahren writes beautifully about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.

Being a female scientist is not easy. Applying for grants and university pressures make financial stability a long-distant goal. She describes how she built her first lab out of a neglected basement classroom and how she and her lab partner, Bill, made do and scrounged for used equipment.

Jahren’s field is plants, especially trees, and her interest in them is contagious. She explains the fascinating way in which they grow, reproduce and adapt, making me think I probably would have liked this kind of science. She is perpetually curious and awestruck by the way nature works. I learned how seeds can lay dormant for years, waiting for the opportunity and courage to take a chance on growing. I like how she applies this to human life.

In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

Lab Girl is a memoir more than it is a science book. Jahren’s father taught science at a community college and it was in his lab where she developed a love for learning. But her parents were cold and distant and she craved a nurturing existence. She also describes her personal struggles with bipolar disorder, a condition which reveals itself in her young adult years. Equally important to Jahren is her relationship with Bill, to whom she gives ample credit for their successes. Their connection, while not romantic, is like a marriage.

The lengths scientists go to satisfy their obsessive curiosity is what makes them successful at their jobs, even when the way they go about achieving their goals runs counter to how the rest of us live. All-nighters in the lab, eating junk food, cross-country road trips without a map, spontaneous overseas trips to study soil: these are normal times for Jahren, Bill and her students. I’m glad there are people like Jahren because they give us the gift of their knowledge. Jahren’s delivery is beautiful.

Lab Girl deserves all the hype and recognition it has received and I recommend it to all readers.

Jahren is an American geobiologist and geochemist and has won many prestigious awards. She currently works at the University of Oslo in Norway.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

26 thoughts on “Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

  1. Barbara, this is not a book I would normally have looked at but your review has me captivated … one I’m noting down for the summer! Also, how true that too much hype can drive one away from the book – glad your book club choose this to read.

  2. I’m the same when it comes to books with a lot of hype, Barbara. Given I’ve never heard of this book, I might have to add it to my list. Thanks for the review!

    1. Hi Jill – working in a library, I see a lot of the fast-movers and hear what everyone is saying. I’m glad I liked Lab Girl – it’s a pretty quick read and definitely enjoyable. Thanks for visiting!

    1. Yes, she probably would – what was interesting is how long Jahren went barely scraping by, but then she made it. She’s very humble about her achievements, too. Thanks for reading!

  3. I’m going to buy this for my husband. He created a rare palm and cycad nursery in Mexico all from seed.Jahren’s experieces sound like something he would enjoy reading.

  4. This isn’t a book I would normally pick up, Barb. But it sounds great. I love books that take a topic I have little interest in and make me want to know more. I’ll bet this is one of those books. Thanks for the review.

    1. Yes, it’s a very personal story with science as a backdrop. It makes you realize how hard it is to be a scientist. Thanks for reading.

  5. I didn’t hear the hype, Barbara. This is the first I’ve heard of Lab Girl, and I think I’d enjoy it. I was interested to hear you say that you may have enjoyed science lessons more if they’d been done Jahren’s way. I think there is a secret to making science work in the classroom – make it live for students!

    1. I agree, Norah. The author’s enthusiasm for understanding how things grow is what makes this a very interesting book. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  6. I’d seen this book around, but now that I’ve read your review, I think I need to read the book! You make it sound fascinating!

  7. This sounds so thrilling and like a really excellent read. I am the same as you – I tend to avoid things with a hype. It can be a disaster! I’m so glad this worked out for you. X

  8. I’m reading this now and it’s the best book I’ve read in a while. I love all the science and how it connects to her own life here and there. Bill is a riot too!

    1. I know, Sheila! I was not sure I’d like Lab Girl, but my work friend told me how much she loved it and I was glad I picked it up. I’m glad you’re loving it too!

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