Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren

Hardcover, 2016

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

Media reviews

With “Lab Girl,” Jahren has taken the form of the memoir and done something remarkable with it. She’s made the experience of reading the book mimic her own lived experience in a way that few writers are capable of. She swerves from observations about plant life (“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet”) to a report from the interior of her tortured brain (“Full-blown mania lets you see the other side of death”) to adventures on the road with Bill (“ ‘Do you really think this is illegal?’ I asked Bill over the CB radio.”) — and somehow, it all works, because the structure and the language follow the story.

User reviews

LibraryThing member eun410
Botany plus a wonderful memoir
LibraryThing member Beamis12
3.5 When I first started reading this I was more interested in the chapters, which alternated with her personal story, on the trees and plants. That changed though as I read on. Loved her story too, her beginning passion for the sciences, her childhood and going with her dad to his lab, her first jobs which I found eye opening, and her wonderful long term friendship with Bill. He would become her lab partner, the person she bounced ideas off of and shared triumphs and disappointments with. The truly difficult work of starting a new lab, the constant quest for funding, grants and other studies. Trying to formulate new experiments that would be found worthy of significant money. The many years of struggle, constant paperwork and the tweaking of ideas. The chapters on plants, trees and seeds were illuminating but sometimes a bit mind boggling.. still learned and immeasurable amount there too.

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.
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LibraryThing member bogopea
It wasn't until the end of this book that the author confessed to being a poet and lifelong writer. Not surprising after reading the lyrical prose in Lab Girl. I loved this book. Dr. Jahren is the common man's scientist. What she tells us about this living earth is easy to understand, fun to read, and important to know. The book is a loosely based memoir so she let's us see the "inner" Hope as she grew up and as she became her own person. A large part of the book is also her career-long partnership/friendship with Bill, her lab partner and best friend who has worked with her at every lab since college. It is a beautiful relationship. Coincidentally, I planted my very first tree, a bald cypress, 3 months ago and have been treating it as a newborn. I love seeing the daily changes as it grows. Reading this book has made me appreciate this tree so much more as well as providing me with new knowledge to better care for it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kristelh
I read this book for the DeweyCat and found it also worked for memoir. Also discovered that this author is from Austen, Minnesota. I liked her writing and description of Minnesota but right off the bat, she exaggerates so keep that in mind when reading this. Winter does not start in September and last 9 months in Austen and it isn't that cold. Speaking as one from Northern Minnesota. I always say it can snow every month except July in Minnesota but really it isn't that bad and Austen in located nearly on the Iowa border. She describes a wonderful relationship with her father but for some reason must hate her mother even though they worked in the garden together. How can you hate your mother, she never gave us a good reason except she didn't think her mother showed love. She was okay with the stoic Norwegianess of her dad but disliked her mother. When she left home, she never looked back. She also reveals later in the book that she suffers from Bipolar illness. I suspect maybe a little personality disorder mixed in as well. She describes going through pregnancy with now medications. Perhaps, but I do think she made it more horrible than what it really should have been.

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.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
This is a book about studying plants, but also and mostly a book about being a non-neurotypical woman finding her way in a still-often-hostile world while loving science beyond measure. She’s deeply, deeply weird in a way I recognize, with a knack for turning a phrase and some nice subtle uses of plant development to contrast with her own life story.… (more)
LibraryThing member klburnside
Lab Girl is a memoir/science-y book written by Hope Jahren, an award winning geobiologist. In the book she writes of both her career and personal life, and also gives a lot of information about the complex world of plant 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.
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LibraryThing member mountie9
The Good Stuff
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
Bill!!!
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
Favorite Quotes/Passages

“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.

4 Dewey's

I borrowed this from Leslie and I don't have to review but well we know I have to share
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LibraryThing member msbaba
I was drawn to this book after reading a short biographical sketch of Hope Jahren in Time magazine’s special edition of “The 100 Most Influential People.” I’d never heard of this prize-winning scientist before and wanted to know more about her. In the article, she was headlined as being “science’s great communicator.” That stunning phrase sold me: I just had to buy her book. There is nothing I love better than to read brilliant science authored by an accomplished academic who also writes eloquently.

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.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
Author Hope Jahren is a paleobotanist who, in this wonderful memoir, shares her life as a scientist. Her infectious enthusiasm comes through in every page.

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.
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LibraryThing member adzebill
Stunning science writing about plant biology interspersed with memoirs of a career in science. A book I'd like to give to all the young women I know starting on a research career; both inspiring and sobering. Yes, as her website says, she sure can write.
LibraryThing member januthomas
Amazing book - heard it on audio - read by the author. Highly, Highly recommend it - will never forget it.
LibraryThing member nmele
One of her web addresses is hopejahrensurecanwrite.com. She sure can write, and she sure can teach based on this book--Jahren taught me a good deal about plants, soil and the struggles of research scientists, along with the obstacles men put in the way of women scientists. This is a moving, funny, fabulous book. Read it if you have not yet done so.… (more)
LibraryThing member meandmybooks
Hmmm. Well, I liked some aspects of this one a whole lot better than others, but on the whole it was interesting and memorable. The parts of the book concerning the lives of plants are Wonderful. Really fascinating. The stuff about her work on soils is good too, but Jahren's gift for conveying her passion and enthusiasm for plants made this non-scientific reader, at least, feel “enlightened” and swept into an astonishing new world of familiar-but-unfamiliar living creatures, who act with an intentionality one never would have imagined. The stories of her lab and field work are captivating, the science beautifully explained, and the character of Bill, her heroically patient, deeply bizarre lab assistant, adds interest and also helps us see a more sympathetic side to our prickly narrator. The memoir sections, which form a substantial part of the book, are, for me, less enjoyable. Jahren, sensitive, self-absorbed, and arrogant, is not a character with whom I easily sympathize. I can well believe that the career of a woman scientist is particularly challenging, but Jahren goes on about the various injustices she faced at wearying length. Additionally, too much of the book is about her issues relating to her undemonstrative mother and her feelings of being “different.” She is a poster child for “special snowflake,” and, despite the genuineness of her challenges, especially her truly harrowing bouts of severe mental illness, I got more than a little tired of her woes. Towards the end of the book, however, the tone changes completely and my grumpy intention of giving this 3 stars (the skillful science writing itself deserves 4) disappeared. Her emergence as a loving, joyful mother, particularly, warmed my heart. Even in the most self-pitying parts of the book Jahren can be very funny, and she clearly acknowledges her own over-the-top drama.

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.
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LibraryThing member dele2451
Get prepared to plant a tree! A must read for anyone in--or aspiring to--a career in the earth sciences, as well as anyone who makes decisions regarding their funding. If you know any hopelessly discouraged researchers, you just found their Christmas gift.
LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
A poignant memoir of a female botanist, as she experienced years of struggling for funding, balancing her curiosity for plants with the demands of providing for a scientific laboratory, working with a close friend, and building a life in academia. Fascinating and illuminating about the lot of scientists today, the kind of work scientists do, and how it is funded.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
“My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe.”

“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.
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LibraryThing member aprille
Beautiful prose, a strong voice, and passion for science. I will be happy to read anything else Hope Jahren writes. Made me want to plant a tree.
LibraryThing member labdaddy4
This is an exceptional book by the author - made even more amazing considering it is her first - not counting multiple scientific papers. Her lyrical, emotional, and insightful insights into the life of a true scientist are eye-opening and a joy to read. This is one I will be recommending to everyone.
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
This memoir was simultaneously poignant, inspiring, lyrical, informative, and full of the science and unscientific aspects of life. I am struck by the modesty with which the author describes her struggles with mental illness and her determination. I am struck by her quiet amity to love unconditionally. Absolutely lovely!… (more)
LibraryThing member jjaylynny
I wasn't sure what to make of this book at first; it was not science-y enough to be a memoir about being a female scientist but then I realized that everything the author thinks, feels and writes is informed by her being a scientist; perhaps to (and well known to her) a fault. She's one of those innovative thinkers who can come up with something amazing to study because she's basically a weirdo and a square peg. Her relationship with her friend Bill is absolutely odd, wonderful and hilarious. I looked him up. He appears very normal on the University of Hawaii website. Pity.… (more)
LibraryThing member honkcronk
This non-fiction books highlights the life of a young woman who envisions a career in science. The name "lab girl" indicates just want she enjoys about science which gives her the incentive to run her own lab. Running your own lab can be a different experience than just working in one, of course.

I was interested in the topic of the book as so much is now written about women not being interested in a career in science (as much as men). I think there is a lack of interest in science, math, engineering for American students, sadly. I worked in a career in computers, doing programming and system administration and this same situation exists for women. I thought I would maybe recognize some of what is said about the situation.

I really did not relate to much to what happened to Hope Jahren. She is so dedicated to her career that it did not seem that much else mattered. She was a out and out work addict and this caused her much anxiety when at the end of the book she includes her experience with husband and child. If I owned my own business I could have understood this at a different level than I did. After I read this book, I realize that working in science and owning your own lab is only for the most dedicated person and Hope Jahren is one of those people.

It was an interesting read, but a little different than what I expected. I will recommend this book to others. I originally bought it for my daughter who works in a diagnostic lab at cornell university. (She is too busy to read it! I should have expected that is the case!)

Working in science (and engineer, computers, medicine..) is for the dedicated. I hope we can convince more women and more Americans to do this. I am not sure this book will give them the incentive... they might be scared away from working so hard. I wish Hope could have included some inspirational reasons why she might think others should go into science as she did.... this is outside of her life, I think. Her chapters on nature, science, trees, plants, and botany were the irspirational part. I think she separated these from her life story for a reason. She had to be focused on keeping her Lab going in the right direction. The only person in the book she could relate to at the time was her lab partner as they spent so much time together at work. There we no women friends or colleagues. I believe there were some women students but she did not portray the students in a very flattering light, despite the fact that she was a professor. Teaching was secondary to the Lab.

The author is a very brilliant person and has a great love for science.
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LibraryThing member mamzel
Read by the author, this is an honest look at the hardships suffered by a (yest another) male-dominated field. Without any parental support, Hope worked her way through school, and struggled to build labs in various locations to suit her purpose. One could call her a queen of scrounge for the efforts she put in. Along with her underpaid companion, Bill, who usually lived in utter poverty, she managed to do her studies and train a new batch of scientists to boot. Oh, and get married and have a child as well.

Stunning story. It should be read by every high school and college woman who imagines a different life as a female scientist.
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LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
This is one of those books that can change the way you view the natural world. A memoir starting with a childhood in rural Minnesota to J life’s passion of being a geobiologist running her own lab in Hawaii. A tale of sacrifice, friendship, passion, and serious dedication with fascinating and detailed insight into the complex and wondrous inner workings of plants. I highly recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Ms. Jahren intertwines her life as an unconventional character in the world of scientific research with snippets of the interesting things she has learned about plant growth. Less science and more exploration of who the author is and how her work reflects her unique life experience, this memoir captures the drive to wonder and to discover… (more)
LibraryThing member KateVane
This is a memoir about a life in science but Jahren doesn’t write like a scientist. Her prose is vivid and impressionistic. She describes her father’s lab as her childhood castle, the cold winters and startling summers of Minnesota, the exasperation of a gifted child who is told to slow down. Working nights in a hospital she is accompanied by the heart metaphors of Dickens as she makes the sterile solutions that save lives.

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.
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