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.