Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a beautifully written memoir about work, love, friendship, illness, and the tenacity female scientists need to succeed. This is a brave book; it is raw and honest and overall inspiring. I recommend it enthusiastically.
After reading Lab Girl, it is impossible to look at any tree or even a leaf without begrudging respect for everything it took for that respective piece of vegetation to venture into the world and live.
A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is only known to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance–to take its one and only chance to grow.
Jahren tells of growing up in a family that rarely talked and barely emoted. (“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.”) Her relationship with her mother was strained, but she drew comfort and strength from her scientist father whom she idolized.
I grew up in my father’s laboratory and played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them. My father taught forty-two years’ worth of introductory physics and earth science in that laboratory, nestled within a community college deep in rural Minnesota; he loved his lab, and it was a place that my brothers and I loved also.
Jahren is passionate about science and driven to succeed. She describes the obstacles female scientists often encounter — narrow-mindedness, failure to be taken seriously and be included, prejudice, sexual harassment — and how she barreled through and worked harder than anyone else to prove she belonged. Belong she does, and she has succeeded magnificently: three Fulbright Awards, one of only four scientists (and the only woman, natch) to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences, tenured professor, and kick-ass writer.
There is a special skill to writing about science. It’s a secret language to those of us on the outside and one has to be especially adept to explain what’s taking place without losing the reader in complex jargon. Jahren is gifted with luminous prose when describing scientific experiments, the rhythms of efficient soil sampling, and proper laboratory procedures. I fell in love with her as she struggled and persevered, and cheered her professional and personal milestones. The passages in which she meets and falls in love with her husband, and regales us with tales of work adventures and friendship with her lab partner, Bill, testify to the depth of her feelings and the fullness of her heart.
She also wrestles mightily with manic depressive illness. Her raw candor about its effects on her life are mesmerizing and heartbreaking. I was awestruck by her strength, grit, and bravery, especially in the section where she describes the impact stopping her medication for 26 weeks (she was pregnant) had on her life. Thankfully what she had to endure worked successfully and her son was born completely healthy. She is fortunate: she has a true partner in her husband, who cared for her and advocated for the medical care she needed; she has access to the best medical care in the world; she has financial resources. That Jahren is aware of and appreciates these gifts make her triumph all the sweeter.
The Jahren Lab is in Norway now but you can keep up with her on her blog and be on the lookout for random op-ed pieces in The New York Times.