All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

on March 10, 2020

Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love
Hope Jahren
Little Brown Book Group
2016, 204p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Lab Girl is a book about work and about love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable stories: about the discoveries she has made in her lab, as well as her struggle to get there; about her childhood playing in her father’s laboratory; about how lab work became a sanctuary for both her heart and her hands; about Bill, the brilliant, wounded man who became her loyal colleague and best friend; about their field trips – sometimes authorised, sometimes very much not – that took them from the Midwest across the USA, to Norway and to Ireland, from the pale skies of North Pole to tropical Hawaii; and about her constant striving to do and be her best, and her unswerving dedication to her life’s work.

Visceral, intimate, gloriously candid and sometimes extremely funny, Jahren’s descriptions of her work, her intense relationship with the plants, seeds and soil she studies, and her insights on nature enliven every page of this thrilling book. In Lab Girl, we see anew the complicated power of the natural world, and the power that can come from facing with bravery and conviction the challenge of discovering who you are.

I never enjoyed science in high school. I also did first year university biology and although I found that much more interesting than high school science, I can’t say that it was something I felt confident in my abilities about. The maths and sciences have never come easy to me, even the relatively simple things and nothing quite so complex as chemistry and physics. So it’s an area I don’t know a lot about and I see this book recommended quite frequently for various non-fiction categories in challenges I am undertaking, so I thought it would be a good option.

Hope Jahren’s father was a scientist and so she grew up playing in his lab, learning to do experiments as a small child. She would wait for him to finish work every night and then they’d walk the 2 miles home, often in freezing conditions. Hope followed in her father’s footsteps, she has a degree from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from Berkeley. After that, she was employed first at Georgia Tech and later at John Hopkins, running her own lab.

I had no idea the way labs worked in the US. Hope meticulously explains where funding comes from and how much there is (precious little it seems) and how, as head of the lab, she had to make that money stretch, including paying her assistant. By the time all her overheads are done, it seems to leave precious little for actual work and there are times when Hope finds it incredibly stressful, knowing that she needs to be doing something, be successful so that she might receive more funding in the future (which she does – she has won numerous awards for her scientific findings and in 2016, Time magazine named her as one of its 100 most influential people). Her assistant Bill, whom she met in California, is an unusual man and the two of them share a very deep bond and friendship. Bill thinks nothing of following Hope pretty much wherever she goes, often earning a pittance that isn’t even enough for him to rent an apartment in the earlier years. He’s lived out of his van, in windowless rooms in university building basements.

Hope is an incredibly remarkable woman and this memoir is not just about her professional life but also her personal life too. She talks of her upbringing with parents of Scandinavian roots who don’t talk about feelings, or how they are. She suffers from a mental illness and takes medication and also documents her difficult pregnancy, including the portion of which she was unable to take her medication in order to protect her unborn child. She talks of her work and how her self-worth is framed by it. When she’s unable to work during the latter part of her pregnancy (and is asked not to even come into the building as her ‘fragile state’ makes people uncomfortable, they don’t know ‘how to deal with her’), it devastates her. It’s an indication of male domination still in STEM related subjects and Jahren is a feminist advocate, supporting and encouraging women in this work and urging them to support and encourage each other as well as document/speak up about any unfair treatment or harassment that they may encounter in the field, just doing their jobs.

A huge part of this book is her working relationship with Bill, a man she meets in California. They’ve been working together now for over 25 years. Bill basically makes happen what Hope wants, even seemingly impossible tasks in the middle of manic episodes. The two of them have an incredible rapport, it’s hard to even describe the way they seem to connect (in a platonic way, there’s never any suggestion of anything else and Hope is married with a child to a man that accepts that Bill is simply part of the package, much like a best friend or close sibling combination). I really enjoyed a lot of the scenes that detailed conversations between Hope and Bill, the way in which they support and are there for each other, particularly in more difficult times, such as Hope being gently urged to see a doctor for some medication or after the death of a family member for Bill.

This was thoroughly enjoyable, despite the fact that I’ll bluntly admit, I do not really understand a lot about Hope’s research and what she’s been doing. It does feel a bit disjointed at times, as it flips back and forth between personal or lab stories and chapters about trees but I do feel as though I learned things from those chapters about trees!


Book #37 of 2020

I’m counting this book towards my participation in the 2020 Nonfiction Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae at Book’d Out. Shelleyrae has previously included this title in one of her helpful recommendation posts for the related to an occupation category but you could probably also use it for science or nature as the book does detail many of the methods Hope Jahren uses to collect her research samples and how she gains her findings. I’ve already done nature and I’ve something else in mind for science, so I’m going to use this to tick off related to an occupation.

1. Memoir

2. Disaster Event

3. Social Science

4. Related to an Occupation

5. History

6. Feminism

7. Psychology

8. Medical Issue

9. Nature

10. True Crime

11. Science

12. Published in 2020

It’s the 4th book completed for this challenge.

I’m also counting Lab Girl towards my participation in the Reading Women Challenge, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. It’s going to be used to tick off the ‘About the environment’ prompt. Jahren not only describes various types of trees (including how they communicate) but her research extensively involves taking soil samples and undergoing expeditions including in different countries, studying different forms of plant life. This is the 5th book read for the challenge.

Always a bonus when you can use one book to tick off prompts in two different challenges!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: