Jahren has built three laboratories in which she's studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. She tells about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom's labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and the disappointments, triumphs and exhilarating discoveries of scientific work. Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
What I liked. I liked the part about the plants and the science and how she "asks the questions" that lead to the research and the description of the difficulties of academia. Her lab partner was also eccentric. Pretty weird guy with great parents. I didn't get that either. And why didn't he complete his degrees. Usually colleges would have had some program for tuition of employees of the college. It's an easy read, entertaining and informative.
Loved this quote, "Oh, I'm not worried about him," returned Bill. "He's gone (his father). It's not any more complicated than that. Honestly, if I admit it, it's me that I feel bad for." Really, that is what grief is.
I also liked this; "We had them growing sweet potatoes under the greenhouse gas levels predicted for the next several years, the levels that we're likely to see if we, as a society, do nothing about carbon emissions. The potatoes grew bigger as carbon dioxide increased. this was not a surprise. We also saw that these big potatoes were less nutritious, much lower in protein content, no matter how much fertilizer we gave them."
And the final word; plant a tree every year.
Hope grew up in Minnesota, born to Scandinavian parents who were emotionally distant. Her father taught science at a community college and Hope (and her brothers) spent quite a bit of time in his lab while he was working. Perhaps this is what kindled her interest in science; she certainly never seemed to doubt that her field would be some branch of science. She must have been a prodigy since she obtained a cum laude Bacherlor's degree at the age of 21 and was accepted to University of California, Berkeley where she obtained her Ph.D 5 years later. While at Berkeley she met Bill Hagopian, another science student, who would become her friend and lab supervisor for all her subsequent work. They would pull all-nighters to get projects done and laugh and joke continuously. Bill was able to fix anything, a valuable trait when funds were scarce. Jahren worked first at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Although her salary was paid by the institute, the funds to run the lab and pay Bill had to come from grants. In the early days, before Jahren had established a reputation, grant funding was hard to obtain. At one point Bill was living out of his vehicle and when he couldn't do that anymore he lived in a room in the lab. After three years Jahren moved to John Hopkins University in Baltimore and Bill moved along with her. Despite the close nature of their relationship it never became a romance and in Baltimore Jahren met the man she would marry, Clint Conrad. An offer from the University of Hawaii convinced her to move her lab there primarily because it offered more stability for Bill. Jahren and Conrad had a son in Hawaii but the pregnancy was a time of anxiety because she had no good example to follow to learn how to parent She also was diagnosed with manic depression prior to becoming pregnant and had to go off all her medication while she was pregnant. Once her son was born Jahren seemed to become less manic, less anxious and she talks about her son and her husband with great love. Her work is still her passion and probably always will be but it is nice to see that she can enjoy other segments of her life.
Jahren is a dedicated, inspiring, and talented individual, and her passion for what she does seeps through the pages. I admire her deep reverence for the natural world and her insatiable curiosity. I also appreciate her honesty in talking about her struggles with manic depression and all the doubts and setbacks she experienced along the way.
Jahren writes a lot about Bill, her lab partner and best friend. They work together, travel together, and have done so for years, all while Jahren is happily married. I found their relationship intriguing, and like that it doesn't really fit neatly into any box. They obviously care about each other and that is what matters.
On a side note, I just read an interesting article about Jahren taking over Seventeen Magazine's #ManicureMonday, which encourages people to post pictures of their manicures and nail art. Jahren instead encouraged people to post pictures of their hands doing things, manicured nails or not. Hoping to remind girls and women that what you do with your hands is just as beautiful as what they look like, the twitter feed totally changed, and the next Monday instead of manicured nails, the feed was full of women's hands taking samples from plants, holding test tubes and fossils, and doing other science things. I liked that.
In Lab Girl, she talks about various aspects of her life and her career: growing up in a family who seldom spoke to each other; the painstaking care with which she goes about doing science and the careless neglect that seems to have characterized much of her personal life; the struggles of scientists to get funding and her particular difficulties as a woman in science; her struggles with bipolar disorder; her somewhat strange but very deep connection with her lab assistant/bff; her love of plants; and the ways in which she has grown in her life.
She intersperses all of these personal musings with short, sometimes rather poetic descriptions of how plants grow and survive and reproduce. These chapters generally reflect in a metaphorical fashion on things in her own life, but she never pushes that so far it starts to feel artificial or cute. And they're kind of fascinating. I know they got me thinking in slightly new ways about the trees I pass every day on my way to work, almost without seeing them.
The writing is good, but a little odd, in a hard-to-describe way. It somehow feels simultaneously intimate and distancing, but maybe that's appropriate, because it very much reflects the sense you get of the author and her self-image. She does come across as a bit of a weird person (and her aforementioned research partner/best buddy even more so), but in an interesting way. Sometimes she made me laugh -- she and the people she surrounds herself with seem to be masters of expressing affection via humorous shit-talking -- and sometimes she made me roll my eyes at her a little -- seriously, lady, you should not need to experience a bad accident to know you should wear a seat belt! -- but she's definitely not boring. Even if she does capture very well the un-glamous tedium that is such a large part of scientific research and so seldom acknowledged.
I was blown away by the clarity of her writing, her passion, her vulnerability all of which shone through in this book. Her honesty with her doubts, mistakes and the hard work that this type of career entails. This is a book to reread there is so much information in it about the nature we see out of our windows and take for granted. She showed me a whole different way of looking at these things. Simple wonderful.
ARC from publisher.
I absolutely hated reading about the gorilla in a roadside zoo-type attraction. I hate that the author went there. I hate that animals live decades in misery for our entertainment and the owners' profits.
It seems that every time I read a memoir lately, it is about someone with mental health issues, someone who needs medication. While I am happy that the medication is helping, reading about it gets tiresome. I wanted to read about plants and the science thereof, and I got too much very personal information.
Still, this was an interesting book. But my heart breaks for that gorilla and the others like him.
I borrowed this audio edition from my local library.
So, I recommend this for readers with an interest in the subject – a young woman's early years and career as a scientist – with a couple reservations. First, there is a lot about Jahren's struggles, both with coming to terms with her distant mother, and with serious mental illness. Second, her literary references, in the early part of the book, struck me irritatingly as forced and pretentious, and her editor would have done well to suggest that she take a second look at the ending of Great Expectations, which I think she does not remember as well as she imagines. Still, I think that the strengths of the book outweigh these weaknesses (and for many readers my first complaint may actually add interest, it just wasn't something I enjoyed), and Jahren beautifully conveys the excitement and wonder that have inspired her to devote herself to a life of scientific investigation.
The book took me two days to finish and held my interest throughout. But in the end, the book was as equally fascinating as it was disappointing. It also left me frustrated. Let me explain.
The memoir takes up perhaps two thirds of the text, but interspersed throughout are many small chapters, each illuminating some small facet of botany. Virtually every one of these life-science essays was exquisitely written and intellectually enchanting. I loved them! In many ways they reminded me of some of the best science writing of O. E. Wilson. I would definitely buy another book by Jahren that was focused on some popular aspect of geology, chemistry, or botany. These essays were five-star gems…but this book is not getting five stars because those essays only formed a minor part.
As charmed as I was by the book’s botany essays, I was disenchanted (and frustrated) with the biographical chapters. In my view, all lives are fascinating if you scratch deep enough, and Jahren’s life was, indeed, very interesting. But what this author seemed to lack is any deep psychological perception about herself. In so many ways, Jahren seemed like a stranger to her own emotional and psychological landscape. I found that startlingly odd in a woman who was otherwise so incredibly brilliant. I always wanted her to take me deeper, but instead she generally just followed the action. Sometimes her vignettes were intriguing, sometimes amusing, sometimes downright silly (revealing youthful immaturity, lack of judgment, and inexperience)…and a few times, they were bit too technical for my general interest.
Her memoir consisted of a disjointed grouping of chronological stories selected from her life. At the end, the author reveals that she had chosen most of the stories because she and her lab partner, Bill, often reminded each other about them and took great joy in talking about them. If these stories amused the two of them, she was sure they would amuse others…including the reading public.
The stories come from the author’s day-to-day academic experience as a research geochemist and geobiologist. But taken together as a group, the stories actually celebrate the history of her extremely odd, two-decade-long relationship with her lab assistant, Bill. As a whole, the stories puzzled me more than they entertained or amused me…and by the end, the man and their relationship remained more of an enigma than anything else.
“People still puzzle over the two of us, Bill and me. Are we siblings? Soul mates? Comrades? Novitiates? Accomplices? We eat almost every meal together, our finances are mixed, and we tell each other everything. We travel together, work together, finish each other’s sentences, and have risked our lives for each other.”
In the end, I found the book incredibly frustrating. There was so much more I wanted to know, but the author never took me there…never revealed those aspects of her life…or those feelings in her heart! Was she guarding them or was she unaware of them? Frankly, I don’t know.
“Being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”
Hope Jahren is a scientist. Her specialty is paleobiology. She also has a strong passion and dedication to trees.
In this terrific memoir, Jahren describes her early life in Minnesota and her growing fascination with nature and the art of discovery. She then discusses her rise through the scientific ranks, with all the various successes and pitfalls, that crop up, along the way. She is currently a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii.
Jahren takes the reader through her personal life, dealing with a bipolar disorder and starting a family. She also happens to be a very good writer and she offsets the drier, scientific analysis, with clarity and dazzling prose.
Narrative nonfiction has really been shining, these past few years and I can gladly add Lab Girl, to the mix.
I never thought I could become so engrossed and truly mesmerized with a book that talks about plants and flowers
BILL - I won't be able to plant a tree right now, but I will be putting Bill's name on the tree in the park just outside my gate
Such a fascinating, truly complicated women
She made trees, plants and weeds come alive and made them feel human - you will finish reading this book with a true appreciation of all plant/tree life and want to do all you can to protect them
Her writing is extremely poetic on many occasions
Extremely honest and raw
Her description of a depressive episode are so bang on and raw - the courage to be so open about something so personal is so brave
Hopefully will inspire girls to enter the male dominated sciences field
Makes you want to learn more - why oh why must our teachers make science so bloody boring - her passion for her work is thrilling and inspiring
I love the relationship between her and Bill - this is my idea of true friendship
Loved the kids story Bill made up - twisted but love it
Umm the story about Hope's intern who worked in the zoo and had to put antibiotic on the monkeys genitals - yup worth the price of the book
The Not So Good Stuff
The audio version was hard for me to listen to as the author reads the book and while extremely passionate, it was hard to listen to her overwrought voice. This is just a personal observance and no judgement - it was just painful to listen to at times - I had to listen in installments
I now have profound grief about how many plants I have killed over the years and have vowed to change that - bugger do you know how little of a green thumb I have
Her pronunciation of the word "root" is jarring
“Working in the hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help.”
"We were interrupted by a good natured offer from a drunkish student who was dangerously armed with a guitar."
"Within certain social circles of the married, a single women over the age of 30 inspires compassion similar to that bestowed upon a big friendly stray dog.
I borrowed this from Leslie and I don't have to review but well we know I have to share
Chapters alternate between amazing stories of plants and her journey as a scientist.
We see her pursuit of her studies and the difficulties and adventures in establishing a lab of her own as she fights for lab space and funding.
It's also a story of a unique friendship as we see her relationship with her lab assistant Bill, also a dedicated researcher as well as a staunch supporter of her work.
And finally, it's a story of her not just living with, but triumphing over her bipolar disorder. She shares her absolutely manic work hours as well as some details of her incredibly brutal pregnancy where she chose so go without medication until the third trimester in order to protect her unborn son.
She weaves these subjects into one really fine whole, and although my review may seem choppy with all the subjects she manages to work in, the book certainly isn't.
Highly recommended; especially for those with interests in plants, science, extraordinary women and bipolar disorder.
She intersperses the working life of a scientist with her personal story and vignettes about the lives of plants and trees. A few things particularly struck me, like the financial challenges of being an academic scientist, responsible for funding your team, and the struggles particular to women in the profession.
The book also gives you a sense of the range of skills you need to be a successful scientist. It’s not enough to be brilliant in your field and a great teacher, you also have to be an entrepreneur, a politician, a manager, a diplomat, a performer, a writer. You need the strength to dig trenches in the Arctic and the finesse to make glass tubes in the lab.
Although the book is loosely chronological it shifts easily between Jahren’s different worlds, giving it the feel of a conversation with a very entertaining friend. And it is friendship that is at the heart of the book.
Bill has been her lab manager for over twenty years. Jahren describes how their shared love of work and their unconventional outlooks have led them to stay together as they moved universities, each time setting up a new lab. They have travelled the world, worked through the night, eaten bad food, had, it seems, a disproportionate number of traffic accidents, and stood as a team when they felt the world was against them. It made me wish we could all have a Bill.
I received a copy of Lab Girl from the publisher via Netgalley.