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.
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