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Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren

It is difficult to know how to categorize the extraordinary book Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) by Hope Jahren. It is perhaps best to call it a memoir because it certainly reveals facets of the life of author and scientist, Hope Jahren, from her childhood to the present. It also might be thought of as a science publication due to the specialized information Jahren discloses about the subjects of geochemistry and geobiology, her fields of expertise. Another book classification for consideration might be love and relationships since Lab Girl tells the touching story of the odd, humorous and committed relationship between Jahren and her fellow scientist/team-member, Bill – (no last name is ever given for Bill). Jahren and Bill, because of their idiosyncrasies and lack of social skills, possess the ways but not the words to show their deep regard for one another. All of these areas, and more, are brought together through Jahren’s impressive writing skills, and are organized into three sections in Lab Girl: “Roots and Leaves,” “Wood and Knots,” and “Flowers and Fruit.”

In the first section, “Roots and Leaves,” Jahren, a three-time Fulbright Award winner and a recent Leopold Fellow at Stanford University, explains that she began her life in a small town in southern Minnesota, the only daughter of four children. Her father was a professor at a local college. As a youngster Jahren walked with her father — who taught forty-two consecutive years of introductory physics and earth science at the same institution — to his laboratory at the college so that he could check that it was closed down properly. Jahren came to love the laboratory during those visits. As happy as those times with her father were, Jahren writes, “Back at home, while my mother and I gardened and read together, I vaguely sensed that there was something we weren’t doing, something affectionate that normal mothers and daughters naturally do, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I suppose she couldn’t either. We probably do love each other, each in our own stubborn way, but I’m not entirely sure, probably because we have never openly talked about it. Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.”

Jahren left high school as a junior to take the opportunity of a scholarship at the University of Minnesota. It wasn’t long before she switched her major from literature to science. “The very attributes that rendered me a nuisance to all my previous teachers — my inability to let things go coupled with my tendency to overdo everything — were exactly what my science professors liked to see… Once again I was safe in my father’s laboratory, allowed to play with all the toys for as long as I wanted.” From the University of Minnesota Jahren went on to do post-graduate work and then earned her PhD at the University of California, Berkley, in the field of soil science.

Interspersed with her story of the journey through university to becoming a scientist, Jahren writes with the heart of a poet and the knowledge of a scientific expert about plants — particularly trees. She tells of the tree at her childhood home that was her confidant and her place of comfort. And she writes about interesting and unusual traits of many other trees as well: “It’s rare, but a single tree can be in two places at once. Two such trees can exist up to one mile apart and yet still be the same organism. These trees are more similar than identical twins. In fact, they are identical without qualification right down to each single gene. If you cut both trees down and count the rings you will see that one of them is much younger than the other. When you sequence their DNA, you’ll find no differences. This is because they used to be parts of the same tree.” Using the example of a willow tree on a river bank Jahren says that willows can lose up to 10 percent of their branches every year, and many fall into the river. “Carried away on the water, one out of millions of these sticks will wash up onto a bank and replant itself, and before long that very same tree is now growing elsewhere… Over the decades one–may be two–of these will successfully take root down river and grow into a genetically identical doppelganger.”

Late in the second section, “Wood and Knots,” Jahren relates how she came to face and seek treatment for her manic depressive disorder. Her description of her experience is powerful, full of bewilderment and pain and beautifully written. Here is a short portion: “Full blown mania lets you see the other side of death. Its onset is profoundly visceral and unexpected, no matter how many times you’ve been through it. It is your body that senses the urgency of a new world about to bloom… The world appears as if through a fish-eye lens; your view is fuzzy with sparkling edges. You have received a grand, systemic injection of Novocain and your entire body tingles briefly before it becomes flaccidly foreign and unreal. 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… And then it’s too loud and too bright and there’s too much too close to your head and you scream, scream, scream it away…Finally fear overcomes sadness and you roll back the stone, crawl out of the tomb to assess the damage and do what needs to be done.” Lab Girl is not a book about manic depressive disorder, but Jahren’s inclusion of this reality opens the reader to a broader understanding of her life.

The final section, “Fruit and Flowers,” tells about the years in Jahren’s life when her work as a scientist is finally acknowledged in the area of soil science. Jahren explains that with this recognition field work outside the US becomes available. Jahren’s rendering of the research team’s travel exploits are extremely funny; she manages to find the humor in their travels despite the incredible hardships they face. One of the most appealing characteristics of the team of Jahren-and-Bill is that no matter where they are in the world, despite the raw field conditions or miserable accommodations, there is not a shred of pretentiousness in either of them. Are they snarky? yes; pretentious? no. When it comes to science, their minds are fully set on the research to be done, and they intend to do it come what may.

There are plenty of escapades in Lab Girl, including a laboratory explosion, a spectacular car wreck, a surprise wedding, and finally, a working laboratory that fulfills Jahren’s childhood dream of having a laboratory like her father’s. Intermittently in Lab Girl, Jahren appeals to the reader to become aware of plant life, and to make an effort to befriend it. Her final request is for each reader to plant a tree and care for it. One caveat lector: there is a lot of profanity in Lab Girl; if you can get past that, and if you care at all for the world of plants, you will thoroughly enjoy Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.