Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
As a child, Hope Jahren spent hours in her father’s science laboratory, and from her mother she inherited a love of language. These earliest influences find an auspicious union in Lab Girl, Jahren’s captivating story of a life in science.
The skilled hand of a storyteller drives this memoir of her transition from student to scientist, and in writing about the plants and trees that are her subjects, she is frequently poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”
Though fluent in the argot of her work, Jahren employs metaphor and personification in making her subject friendly to the lay reader. A mass spectrometer becomes a sort of bathroom scale for atoms; the first root sent out by a seed is an act of courage, and the interactions between trees and insects are a war. In one passage, she imaginatively dissects the composition of 35 pounds of maple leaves into enough sucrose to make three pecan pies, enough cellulose to make 300 sheets of paper, and the amount of magnesium found in 14 one-a-day vitamins.
Central to Lab Girl is Jahren’s relationship with Bill (referred to throughout by first name only), the rebellious undergraduate she recruits as a lab assistant while she is in graduate school at Berkeley. Bill receives his Bachelor’s degree concurrently with Jahren being awarded her Ph.D., and when she accepts a professorship at Georgia Tech, the pair depart for Atlanta to build their own lab. In Georgia, they scrape by. Jahren lives in a basement apartment adjacent to a steel factory; Bill moves into a “goose-shit yellow” Volkswagen Vanagon and later into the lab itself. Despite his cynicism, he is ubiquitous and universally helpful in the lab.
Their journey takes them further to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where Jahren falls in love and marries, and later to Hawaii. There are research trips to Ireland, Norway, and a tiny island 100 miles north of Alaska. Throughout, the pair meet both success and failure with equanimity as they build one laboratory after another and conduct research in the face of academic bureaucracy. Pervasive is Jahren’s gratitude for work that she loves and guilt for not being able to pay Bill enough.
Lab Girl is my favorite memoir since 2015’s H is for Hawk. It is an unputdownable book that wonderfully intertwines the stories of an award-winning scientist and the plants she studies.