Lab Girl by Hope Jahren 🍁

Hope Jahren is a geobiologist, studying mostly trees and other plant life. Currently a tenured professor in Hawaii, Jahren looks back on her life in the sciences, starting with her father, a science teacher, taking her to his lab at night and letting her use any equipment she wanted while he worked silently. As a graduate student, Jahren meets Bill, a loner who claims he moved out of his parents’ place at age twelve to live in a hole in the back yard, which he rigged up with electricity and carpeted. Together, in Lab Girl, readers see Jahren and Bill develop a friendship centered on lab work interspersed with short chapters with plant facts.

Lab Girl may be a hard sell because it will attract a certain kind of reader, who is interested enough in science to get through longer descriptions of how a mass spectrometer works, but can also empathize with two weirdos. Those oddballs, Jahren and Bill, are the heart of Lab Girl. The book prioritizes two people we may not normally meet: a bipolar woman in the sciences and a man spending years homeless and alone because it suits his scientific pursuits. Jahren and Bill are a man and woman in a platonic friendship that never crosses the line into something flirty or romantic. People who live non-traditional lives by choice — skipping stability, romance, children, and social lives — are not prioritized in our communities, and Jahren gives voices to the countless people whose families eyeball them at Thanksgiving, wondering when they’re going to finally be like everyone else.

While there is a lot of humanity in Lab Girl, you also get science and how it is treated in the U.S. For instance, Jahren explains how new professors are funded for about three years by a college, which gives them time to build something and apply for their own grants. If the new scientist fails to get a grant, things are pretty much over. Especially challenging for Jahren is that she works in what is dubbed the “curiosity sciences,” meaning the end goal is not to come up with a life-saving medicine or produce something that can be marketed and sold. Thus, the funding for these folks is limited and competitive. Beyond money, the chapters explaining plant life make you appreciate that you are walking on millions of seeds, and that seeds must take a gamble and decide the place and time during which they sprout roots will be a good bet for decades. By personifying plants just a smidgen, the author makes the science more relatable to readers who are not especially well-educated, or maybe even uninterested, in the sciences.

Even if you’re not familiar with earth sciences, Lab Girl can start a conversation. Biscuit, Lou @ Lou Lou Reads, and I got together on video to talk about Jahren’s book. We discussed the benefits of government funding provided to the “curiosity sciences,” which led to discussions about the function of art grants. If something can’t be sold to recoup the cost to research it, and it can’t save lives, should the public fund it? Later, Lou, who is a trained nurse and proud holder of a PhD, talked more about the personalities of folks in the sciences and the way Jahren and Bill may seem strange to readers, but reflect a different sort of personality common to STEM folks. Another important conversation involved Jahren’s choice to have a baby despite having to stop taking necessary anti-psychotics that mitigate symptoms of bipolar disorder. Rather than asking if she should have a baby, we talked more about how people can support someone with mental health challenges who want to start a family.

All in all, the various facets of Lab Girl will appeal to different types of readers, so if one section seems boring, you can power through and get back to the people. If you’re looking for a science text, you may not enjoy Jahren’s descriptions of human issues, and in fact, you may enjoy Limber by Angela Pelster better. Biscuit called Lab Girl dry many times, even sending me a GIF of someone coughing up dust, but then grew to like the book, which I thought might be the case. The examples she gave of why the book is dry were so hilarious in the telling, but that perhaps says more about Biscuit than Jahren.

39 comments

    • I mean, it was okay, but if the topic doesn’t interest you, I would say skip it. It’s a hard book to describe because it’s half about science and half about unusual relationships/people, and I don’t know many readers who want to engage with both.

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  1. This sounds great! I love books about scientists, especially if they deal with the realities of funding in academia (I know this is niche!), and I also love books that centre on platonic relationships.

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    • I can’t think of any other book about a platonic relationship between a straight man and woman. As I mentioned to a few other readers, this book is hard to suggest to someone because if they like relationships, it’s got that, but the other 50% (every other chapter) is descriptions of science and processes in science.

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    • When I read this with Biscuit, I realized she was more interested in the relationships and I wanted more of the science. As you know from reading it, the chapters with people vs plants go back and forth, about 50/50. I wonder if other readers wish she’d rectified this separation more, or incorporated the science of plants more into the story line rather than having so many small chapters about it.

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  2. From what I remember, I didn’t hang in there too long because the author managed to make the science part boring to someone who loves science. On top of that, I found the author to be kind of cold and therefore I wasn’t all that interested in getting to know her any better. But I did not power through as you suggested, to find other things to like. It could very well have been me and not the book too. I just remember firmly deciding that I was not going to keep going after about 50 pages. (I usually try to get any book until 50 or 100 before I throw in the towel.)

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    • I’m a firm believer in DNF-ing a book. I know Biscuit wanted more people and I wanted more plants, which makes this book a hard sell to anyone. She sort of humanizes the plants, too, which is odd and doesn’t feel as scientific as some may like. We both wondered what happened with Jahren’s family that she was basically claiming to be anchorless. Were her parents so bad? We couldn’t find anything that suggested as much, but you’d said she had no one but Bill for most of her adult life.

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  3. What a fascinating concept for a book. i am intrigued by the combination memoir-nonfiction you describe in this book. I feel like a lot of books skirt this sort of cross-genre form but this definitely sounds unique. How did y’all select this book to read together?

    I love that y’all chatted about how to support people with mental health problems who want to start a family. This is a problem for anyone who takes medications, not just those with mental health concerns. Diabetics, for example, really struggle to get pregnant. I just wish it wasn’t so hard for people to find support in the world. Why are humans so cruel?

    That said, does Jahren address any of the outsider aspects of their lives? As in, do concepts like this come up in the text at all or was this just y’all reacting?

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    • Biscuit is aware that I have a large plastic tote full of books I own that I want to read and the either get rid of or keep (I don’t think I’ve kept any in ages). Basically, she’s letting me pick out books that I own and need to read that are also at her public library.

      The hard thing about supporting someone with mental health issues is that 1) you’re never sure if they want to talk about it, 2) if you should just listen or give advice or what kind of support they want, and 3) keeping your opinions to yourself! For instance, if Jahren were a friend of mine and I knew she were on medication for bipolar disorder and that she would have to go off of them, I would try to listen — has she consulted a doctor, can she do this safely, etc. But what if she said she hadn’t and she just wanted my support? For instance, Jahren goes off her meds because she’s pregnant and then starts doing things like smashing her head into the walls. I don’t know how I would feel or react knowing that this would happen to my friend; I’ve never been in this situation, so it’s all hypothetical. I don’t think it’s that people are cruel, it’s that the whole thing is complicated.

      About 50% of the book is short chapters on some plant fact. The other 50% is all Jahren’s life, most of which includes time spent in a lab or with Bill, and little is spent on Jaren’s husband, whose name I can’t even remember.

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  4. Given that I have family members who are variously scientists, bipolar and interested in biology, though none homeless right at this minute, I should find someone to give this to. I’ll have to ask my local bookshop if it is available outside the US. Science and arts funding are both an issue in Australia with the federal government using Covid as an excuse to defund Arts faculties in particular.

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    • I know there have been many fundraisers to support artists who can’t work during the pandemic, especially in theater, in the U.S., but it’s not from the government. I suppose I don’t fully know how I feel about it…..and I’m pretty sure everything I feel is offensive, in this regard. But, you’re not a guy to ask folks to keep to themselves, so I’ll share. Arts are always risky. At least in the U.S. we’re taught to value tangible things, so if I go to a play, that doesn’t feed or house me, and I can’t use it again at another time. It was an experience. Thus, when things get rough and people are jobless and homeless and starving, I find it hard to say, “Yes, let’s fund the arts right now.” That is not to say that a pandemic or recession should be an excuse to no longer fund the arts for the foreseeable future. I also think that governments should think about other places that could potentially be cut, too, just not social services or educational programming. My perspective comes from the fact that I work in a library during a pandemic and am mostly helping people find and distribute information related to loss of job, food, housing, utilities…… And I’m saying this as a person with three degrees in fiction writing who believes in art and artists. I guess, ultimately, there is so much out there to read and see already that if we have to put a pause on new art and engage with classics, or even free literature on places like Project Gutenberg, I understand. Then again, I’m always aware that we put an insane amount of money into the U.S. military, sometimes just to maintain a base that is active for reasons unknown to me. Because something happened there ages ago? And we have to keep an eye on it? I don’t know.

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  5. I’m always happy to debate stuff with you. If there was a Universal Basic Income then I would say ‘that’s the arts covered’, well artists anyway, and to a large extent that occurred in Australia during Covid – an unemployment payment was paid on which people could actually live. This has now been reduced again to way below poverty the line.
    Our current conservative federal government is opposed to anything which doesn’t directly aid business. It sees the universities and public radio/tv as the enemy and made excuses during Covid to reduce funding to both. For instance industries were given billions in funding to maintain employment, much of which went straight to the pockets of the owners, but this funding was specifically denied to universities despite the fact that tertiary education is (or was) one of our main export industries. And it was denied to theatre companies etc, whose contribution to the economy (leaving aside for a moment the arts’ contribution to civil life) is always underrated.

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    • I keep seeing articles that women in my generation aren’t having children, and what a giant economic disaster this. Hardy har har. You best have tens of thousands of dollars saved up to buy a house, most people wait until they’re done paying student loans before they can even save up for that down payment on a house, and day care can cost as much as college tuition.

      I also keep reading that fast food restaurants in the U.S. are frantic because they cannot keep workers, and some places are giving $50 for an interview. What kind of job has you work until 1:00AM and then starts your next shift at 5:00AM (technically the same day) and asks you to do it for $7.25 an hour??

      There’s an economic crisis in the U.S. brewing in such a way that it’s going to have huge effects on everyone if people cannot concede that a living wage is a REQUIREMENT.

      I’m off track, but I read about both of these situations multiple times this weekend and am feeling shouty.

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    • All the women in my family work as wait/bar staff at some stage. A daughter and granddaughter are as I speak, But their wages, even for Ms 17, are in the range $20-30/hr. But of course lots of wage theft goes on with the employment of people from overseas on temporary visas.
      Only the women? you ask. Well, I’ve only ever had a week or two between driving jobs but my son has worked as a “dish pig” when he’s had to.

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      • The emphasis on what a disaster low birth rates are always mention women, women, women. There’s no study that I’ve seen that acknowledges that men play a role in the choice to have children, too. The other story is how many women lost their jobs because they had to stay home with children doing Zoom school. It’s one of the best bits of proof that men and women do not receive equal pay if a woman has to stay home with the kids for e-learning because the man makes more money. Even my manager got stuck in this for a while.

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        • I think the implication is that this is the lowest position in the kitchen. A job also held by George Orwell in Paris (Down and Out in Paris and London) but I don’t suppose he calls it dish pig.

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  6. I’ve heard good things about her more recent book too, non-fiction, I believe? Lab Girl is on my maybe-someday, if-it-falls-into-my-lap kinda way. It’s the kind of book that, when libraries are open for browsing, I’m tempted to borrow when a nice, new paperback is on the shelf, y’know?

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    • I looked it up, and yes, she does have a book that came out in 2020, one about climate change. I might give it a peek. I didn’t like the more personal stuff in Lab Girl (I was on team MORE SCIENCE!), so maybe The Story of More will stick to the field and stay away from the personal.

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  7. I really enjoyed reading and discussing this with you and Biscuit! I agree about the book trying to straddle the personal memoir stuff with the plants, and I’m not sure that she always gets the balance right. Obviously I love this book, but mostly it’s for the depiction of her friendship with Bill and the weird and wacky world of academia.

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    • Another blogger just pointed out that Jahren has a new book that came out in 2020, and I read that it tends to stick to the science more than Jahren’s personal life. I’m sure I would enjoy it.

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  8. I’ve heard of this book but it sounds really different from what I expected. I’m not particularly drawn to read it but I do like that it highlights the type of people who might not normally be the focus of a book.

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  9. Sounds like a unique read! Perhaps I should take a page of out Biscuit’s book and just post one review made entirely of GIFs to demonstrate my feelings on that particular read 😉

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  10. I absolutely loved this book and it made me even more appreciative of trees than I already was. For me it was the perfect mix of science and memoir – and getting to learn more about how scientific study is funded (or not) was fascinating. I’m glad you sort of liked it. 🙂

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    • Hey, I’m glad this hit the right notes for you! Lou, the science-minded Lou, loved the part about Bill and Hope’s friendship, which I thought was interesting in itself. As a person in touch with her emotions (although you haven’t shared if you’ve cried at a book lately!), I can see how you would enjoy the memoir aspect of Lab Girl, too.

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  11. It sounds like the three of you got a lot of interesting discussion out of this buddy read! This one was popular just before I started reading nonfiction so I’ve been on the fence about it for a long time, feeling like I’ve kind of missed its moment. On top of that, reading your review, I suspect it might just be too disconnected for me- both the science and the characters appeal, but I think I’d fare better if they were meshed together a little more into a happy middle rather than so back-and-forth. I think I’d struggle with that format even if I liked the content!

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    • Another blogger pointed out that Jahren just came out with a new book about climate change in 2020. I looked into it more and learned that she mainly sticks to science, so I’m thinking that one would be a better fit for you if you are looking for texts on that topic.

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