Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, review by Bruce Jacobs
With good humor, plenty of science, scattered literary allusions and the occasional sarcastic zinger, Hope Jahren's Lab Girl is the sublime memoir of a plant research scientist and her struggles to find professional success, love and family. Inspired by her science professor father, Jahren worked her way through the University of Minnesota as a hospital pharmacy tech, considering a career in medicine until she realized that "the hospital was a place where you confined a sick person and then pumped medication through him until he died or got better." Also attracted to literature, she quickly recognized a preference for science that "didn't talk about books that had been written to analyze other books that had originally been written as retelling of ancient books."
After earning her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, she grabbed a rare assistant professor opportunity at Georgia Tech and, with her lab tech sidekick, Bill, moved to the fertile ecology of the South. With only a start-up financial commitment from the university, she and Bill cobbled together a science lab out of flea market odds and ends. Bill lived in his van as Jahren feverishly applied for federal research grants. The rest, as they say, is history: three Fulbright awards, numerous publications, several outstanding scientist and teacher awards, a world-class lab and tenured professorship at the University of Hawaii, and a devoted mathematician husband and baseball-crazed son--with the eccentric, foul-mouthed, patient, chain-smoking and ingenious Bill at her side all the way.
That takes care of Jahren's personal life story, but Lab Girl is also packed with plenty about the ins and outs of science. Who knew that "the average land plant is a two-ton tree that lives for more than one hundred years," or that "of the many million seeds dropped on every acre of the Earth's surface each year, less than 5 percent will begin to grow. Of those, only 5 percent will survive to their first birthday"? No wonder she describes someone in her field as "a stoic researcher with a strong sense of fatalism." Without undo whining, Jahren points out that "the Department of Homeland Security... commands an annual budget that is fully five times larger than that of the entire [National Science Foundation], while the Department of Defense's mere 'discretionary' budget comes to more than sixty times that sum," suggesting that "science for war will always pay better than science for knowledge."
She and Bill banter about broken cordless drills, experiments gone bad and poorly written grad student theses (one of which she compares to "the famous 'Lucky's Think' monologue in Waiting for Godot"). Jahren emerges as a smart, practical, good-hearted woman who loves her work and also finds joy in her husband, young son and best friend, Bill. She eventually realizes that after years of "trying to make my life into something... all the truly valuable pieces fall from the sky undeserved. I used to pray to be made stronger; now I pray to be made grateful."
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.