Last Updated on June 24, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340
Lab Girl is a memoir composed of the personal stories of Hope Jahren, a geobiologist, geochemist, and, at the time of the book's writing, professor at the University of Hawaii. Jahren grew up in rural Minnesota, where, with the encouragement of her strict and disciplined father—a science teacher at a local community college—she developed a passion for plants and for the scientific study of plant life. Jahren’s stories tell how she built her career as a scientist, but also how she developed a deep friendship with her eccentric lab manager, Bill Hagopian, with whom she has worked for nearly twenty years. The author mixes autobiographical stories of her life with lengthy discussions of the plants she studies. These discussions are at the heart of the book, as Jahren’s passion for plants fuels her passion for life, and she personifies the plants she studies to relate their experiences to those of people.
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Jahren discusses the time the spent in the lab with her father during her childhood, when science provided a safe space that felt like home amid a chilly family atmosphere. She discusses her early teaching career and the challenges she faces as a woman scientist and as a woman struggling with bipolar disorder. She recounts her travels with Bill, from relocations to labs across the US to research trips to the Arctic. She describes falling in love with the man who is now her husband, a fellow scientist named Clint Conrad, in her early thirties, and the eventual birth of their son. She also discusses her experiences with Bill as she seeks treatment for her bipolar disorder and gains recognition for her work as a scientist, even amid the constant struggle to maintain funding for her lab.
Throughout the book, Jahren interweaves the story of her work, her family, and her relationship with Bill with stories of the lives of the plants she studies and loves. Both narrative threads are full of trials and tribulations, passion and success, and, ultimately, an indomitable sense of hope.
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1811
Author: Hope Jahren (b. 1969)
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 304 pp.
Type of work: Memoir
Time: 1969–the present
Locales: Minnesota, California, Georgia, Maryland, Norway, Ireland, Hawaii
In her memoir Lab Girl, geobiologist Hope Jahren recounts the evolution of a life immersed in science—one inextricably interwoven with the lives of the plants to which she has devoted her career.
Hope Jahren, the author, a professor of geobiologyCourtesy of Knopf
Bill, her longtime friend and work partner
Clint, her husband
“As a rule,” geobiologist Hope Jahren writes in Lab Girl, “people live among plants but they don’t really see them.” Undoubtedly the exception to that rule, Jahren is a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who has dedicated her career to the study of plants, specifically with regard to how they interact with the broader environment. Over the course of her career, which has taken her from graduate studies in California through laboratories cobbled together from limited resources in Georgia and Maryland, Jahren has established herself as a persistent, devoted scientist whose research has taken on additional importance amid growing concerns about the fate of plants in a rapidly industrializing world. As a work that blends the scientific and the personal, Lab Girl interweaves the tale of Jahren’s career trajectory with more personal stories, including powerful depictions of her childhood, struggles with mental illness, and later family life. Some parts of the book fall firmly into both categories, such as the many passages focusing on Jahren’s decades-long friendship and scientific partnership with laboratory manager Bill Hagopian. Throughout it all, there are the plants, which serve as the scaffold for the memoir’s structure.
Lab Girl consists of three parts, each broken up into chapters. The first part begins with Jahren’s childhood in Minnesota, where she grew up immersed in science from infancy. Her father, a community college science professor, often brought her to his workplace, where she first played among the scientific equipment and later used the resources at her disposal to learn how to conduct experiments and fix broken equipment. Scientific inclinations were also passed down to Jahren through her mother, who had distinguished herself in science as a high school student but was unable to complete university studies in chemistry for financial reasons. Growing up, Jahren felt that her interest in science made her an anomaly, both in her town, where the majority of adults worked for the local factory, and in the wider world, where female scientists were not yet wholly accepted. After graduating from high school, however, her path was clear. “I knew that I was meant to be an extension of my indestructible mother,” she writes, “a do-over to make real the life that she deserved and should have had.”
Enrolling at the University of Minnesota, Jahren initially studied literature but soon switched her major to geology. While an undergraduate, she found her first job in a scientific field, working first as a medicine runner for the university hospital’s pharmacy before transitioning into a role in the pharmacy’s laboratory, where she prepared bags of intravenous medications. Jahren recounts her memorable experiences in the pharmacy, which not only gave her practical experience in precise lab work but also sparked in her the realization that she wanted to pursue work she truly cared about. Leaving her hospital job for a work-study position in one of the university’s research laboratories, she prepared to “take a long, lonely journey toward adulthood with the dogged faith of the pioneer who has realized that there is no promised land but still holds out hope that the destination will be someplace better than here.”
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Jahren enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked toward a doctorate in soil science. It was during this period that she made what would be perhaps the most significant connection of her professional life. While accompanying a class of undergraduates on a field trip to study the soil of California’s Central Valley, she befriended a student named Bill, in whom she found a kindred spirit. Upon returning from the trip, she convinced her supervisor to hire Bill to work in their lab. This decision would prove to be a highly fortuitous one, as Jahren and Bill’s friendship and scientific partnership would become one of the few constants in her life over the next decades, and their almost symbiotic relationship in many ways forms the heart of Lab Girl. Already inseparable by the time Jahren completed her PhD and Bill his bachelor’s degree, they decided to begin their careers together, both traveling to Georgia when Jahren was offered an assistant professorship at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech).
Over the course of the remaining two parts of the memoir, Jahren recounts the development of both her career as a researcher and her personal life. Facing adversity in the form of severe budgetary limitations, the sexist attitudes of many of her colleagues, and her own struggles with mental illness, Jahren nevertheless built her own laboratory from scratch and succeeded in pursuing work that truly interested her. Accompanied by Bill, she relocated to Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University in 1999, where her lab remained for nearly a decade. Jahren recounts her stint in Oslo, Norway, as well as research trips to locales such as Ireland before telling of her 2008 relocation to the University of Hawaii, where she continued to work as of the book’s publication. Alongside this career trajectory, she chronicles personal milestones such as her first date with her husband, Clint, and the events leading up to the birth of their son.
Lab Girl concludes in a manner consistent with Jahren’s long-standing dedication to plants and concern for the environment, which are evident throughout the book. In addition to an endnote that provides additional information about the scientific studies she cites throughout, she includes an epilogue in which she exhorts readers to consider the effects of deforestation and the eradication of plants in general from the natural landscape, encouraging readers to do their part in combating such potentially devastating phenomena.
As a whole, Lab Girl is a beautifully written memoir of a life in science. Jahren’s devotion to her chosen field is palpable, and even readers minimally versed in biology may feel a newfound fondness for trees and other plants by the end of it. The author excels at explaining relevant scientific concepts—volatile organic compounds (VOCs), for instance—so that they are easily understood by lay readers, yet still written in the same evocative style as the remainder of the work. While much of Jahren’s focus is on the development of her professional life and the associated scientific discoveries that have made her an important figure in her field, Lab Girl is also deeply personal. In vivid language, she describes her experiences with bipolar disorder and the effects of the periods of mania she experienced during her late twenties. One particularly memorable chapter in the memoir’s second section takes the reader through one such period, illustrating her mental state at the time. As is perhaps appropriate, even her descriptions of these instances are rife with plant imagery: “Your raised arms are the fleshy petals of a magnificent lily bursting into flower. It deeply dawns on you that this new world about to bloom is you.” Jahren’s mania seems glorious at first, filled with infinite possibilities, but by the end of the chapter comes the crash: “And then it’s too loud and it’s too bright and there’s too much too close to your head and you scream, scream, scream it away.” The chapter provides a powerful depiction of the realities of mental illness, and although readers who have not personally experienced such incidents cannot hope to understand fully what Jahren was feeling at the time, her visceral description nevertheless gives the reader a very good idea. Further aspects of her personal life, including her relationship with her husband, Clint, and her shifting view of motherhood before and after the birth of her son, are likewise presented with remarkable honesty and power.
Perhaps the most striking element of Lab Girl, however, is the memoir’s overarching emphasis on building what one needs—be it a laboratory or a family—from the ground up, overcoming the many roadblocks that stand in the way of professional and personal fulfillment. Persevering in the face of challenges such as budgetary restrictions and the sexism prevalent in the sciences—a topic that comes up on various occasions in Lab Girl and about which Jahren has written extensively outside of the book—Jahren succeeded in building and rebuilding a laboratory that would allow her to carry out her research in her way. With Bill, and later Clint and their son, she built a family that would weather every challenge that came its way. Lab Girl is an engrossing memoir and an enlightening peek into the careers of working scientists, but at its heart it is above all else a testament to persistence and the will to succeed, both Jahren’s and that of the plants that fascinate her.
The critical response to Lab Girl was overwhelmingly positive, with reviewers for a broad range of publications praising her effective fusion of memoir and science writing. Writing for the New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani called attention to the unusual yet fitting structure of the book, noting, “By crosscutting between chapters about the life cycle of trees and flowers and other green things, and chapters about her own coming-of-age as a scientist, Ms. Jahren underscores the similarities between humans and plants—tenacity, inventiveness, an ability to adapt.” At the same time, Kakutani noted, Jahren calls attention to “the radical otherness of plants” as she describes the unique capabilities and limitations that render them a very different form of life than humankind. Critics likewise praised the beauty of Jahren’s language, often likening it to poetry, and highlighted her discussions of topics such as sexism in science, the financial realities of scientific research, and mental health as being of particular interest.
- Fabian, Ann. “Review: Lab Girl Is the Story of a Brilliant Scientist with Literary Flair.” Review of Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. Huffington Post, 26 Apr. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/the-national-book-review/review-lab-girl-is-the-st_b_9781566.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.
- Green, Lucie. “Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren—Review.” Review of Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. The Guardian, 24 Apr. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/24/lab-girl-hope-jahren-review-story-of-trees-science-and-love. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “Review: Lab Girl, Hope Jahren’s Road Map to the Secret Life of Plants.” Review of Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. The New York Times, 28 Mar. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/03/29/books/review-lab-girl-hope-jahrens-road-map-to-the-secret-life-of-plants.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2016.
- Review of Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. Kirkus Reviews, 15 Jan. 2016, p. 10.