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Lab Girl Summary

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.

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.