REVIEW: "Lab Girl" is the Story of a Brilliant Woman Scientist With Literary Flair

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Knopf     304 pp.

Hope Jahren’s humane and smart Lab Girl opens with this quote from Helen Keller:  “The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.”  Lab Girl shares Keller’s joy in discovering kinship with the world.  Jahren is the world’s kin twice over.  She is a good scientist and a good writer.   

Jahren’s story begins in rural Minnesota in her father’s lab at a community college, where he taught physics and earth science for 42 years.  “In our tiny town,” she writes, “my father wasn’t a scientist, he was the scientist, and being a scientist wasn’t his job, it was his identity.”  It’s an identity she now can claim, thanks to her Ph.D., her lab work, her publications, her prizes, her standing among colleagues in geochemistry and geobiology, and an extraordinary partnership with her lab manager, Bill Hagopian.   

Bill is Lab Girl’s great character.  Hagopian and Jahren have worked together since 1994, a partnership hatched by a pair of twelve-year-old fraternal twins, she says, making science with a dose of mischief.

But she dedicates Lab Girl to her mother who must have been a young woman of uncommon scientific talent.  A high school senior back in the years still shadowed by the Depression and the War, Jahren’s mother earned an honorable mention in the ninth annual Nationwide Westinghouse Science Talent Search.  Recognition didn’t give her a college scholarship, and there was never money enough for her to finish the course in chemistry she began at the university of Minnesota.  She went home to marry and raise a family.  Years later, with the last of her children in pre-school, she re-enrolled in the university, this time in the literature classes she could follow at a distance.

Her mother’s reading gave Jahren her second set of roots, spreading out through literary history.  They are as important to this book as the things she found in her father’s and her mentors’ labs.  Like beakers, microscopes, and spectrometers, Shakespeare, Genet, Beckett, and especially Charles Dickens are tools Jahren uses to apprehend the world.

Jahren describes herself as a student working long shifts in a hospital pharmacy and struggling to write an English paper on “The Use and Meaning of ‘Heart’ within David Copperfield.”  There’s a lesson in the chapter about how Jahren’s unquiet mind works through a problem, but Dickens’s sense of the human heart structures the story of her hospital days and nights and gives her book a running theme.

A careful reader (or insightful book group) could probably return a favor to Jahren, the undergraduate, and write a paper on “The Use and Meaning of ‘Heart’ within Lab Girl.”   But I think she’d rather we pick up her science tools and think some about plants and about the work it took to get her from her wintry Minnesota girlhood to “The Jahren Laboratory” at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa.

Like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Lab Girl feeds us the science running through its personal stories.  Macdonald and Jahren, different as they are, both walk a border where science selves morph into writer selves and snap back again.  Smart women, they balance the elements of their stories, the real achievement of the science-life genre.  

Jahren gives readers a dose of the bipolar illness that could have upended her career and ended her life but that disease is not Lab Girl’s point.   Instead, we get to feel the rhythms of her work: slow-growing plants, painstaking data collection, and sometimes the quick insight that brings it all together as new knowledge.     

And she has a point to make about how the work of science gets done.  New knowledge like Jahren’s doesn’t come cheap.  Her “curiosity-driven research” competes for funding way down at the shallow end of the money pool.  Universities take a big cut for overhead, sure that work like hers will never result in a “marketable product, a useful machine, a prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any direct material gain—or if it does indirectly lead to one of those things, this would be figured out at some much later date by someone who is not me.”  

Actually, Jahren might be being too modest about the work’s payoff.  The quickening pace of climate change has put a new press on plant science.  (Think of Matt Damon’s hero botanist in “The Martian.”)  Jahren’s lab has tackled a fundamental question.  She is trying to figure out what plants do.  While colleagues insisted “trees just are,” she has “tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it.”  Trees learn, remember, and take care of their young trees, but in a plantlike way.      

Maybe, thanks to Jahren, the next lab girl who comes along will have an easier time making a career in science.  And if curiosity-driven research gives us new ways to think about the plant world, we can all join the lab girls and raise a beaker in thanks to Jahren (and to Bill).  

Ann Fabian is an American historian.  She is working on a book about herpetologist Mary Cynthia Dickerson.