by Erica Akhter
I stumbled upon Lab Girl as I was walking into my usual bookstore looking for coffee and free WIFI. I don’t spend much time these days reading for pleasure, but the title and cover intrigued me. “Lab girl,” I thought, “Hmm. I am that.”
As it turns out, I’m actually not, at least not in the same way the author is. And that has complicated immensely how I think about my relationship with science and my future career, but I’m extremely grateful I read it anyway.
As soon as I picked up the book (actually, as soon as I plugged in my headphones because I rented it from the library for FREE) I couldn’t put it down. Lab Girl made me laugh, made me cry, and despite having listened to it over a year ago, I still think about it—or stress about it—on at least a weekly basis.
Lab Girl is the nationally best selling memoir of the remarkably successful geobiologist Hope Jahren, now a professor at the University of Hawaii. Throughout the book, Jahren describes how she developed from a curious and outdoorsy girl playing in her father’s lab into a radically determined woman who successfully built her career despite struggles with funding, mental health and men in power who regarded femininity as weakness.
Jahren’s style is first and foremost one of storytelling. She writes about her experiences frankly and with such candor that it’s almost uncomfortable. The majority of her adult life was spent with the singular focus and determination that most developing scientists wish they could harness. It is clear, though, through her anecdotes that this remarkable concentration came with a high price. A feeling of loneliness permeates the book and this sense is strikingly juxtaposed with the love and passion Jahren illustrates when talking about her science and the relationships she built because of, and eventually in spite of, it
To me, the most striking aspect of Jahren’s perspective is the absolute reverence she has for both the things she studies and the way she studies them. Only the most gifted scientist and teacher could make a mass spectrometer sound at the same time magical, interesting, and completely comprehensible for even a majority-lay audience. When speaking about plants, or lab equipment, or—eventually—people she venerates, Jahren’s writing becomes hauntingly beautiful, bordering on poetic. Her descriptions of the most complex and seemingly mundane processes are both educational and awe-inspiring. These are the parts of the book that explain the drive it took for Jahren to make it through the many challenges, disappointments and exhilarating discoveries that true lovers of science live through and live for. These are the parts that may explain to those non-scientists in your life why you’re willing to work to answer big questions for little money. If you’re anything like me, these descriptions are also the parts that may make you question whether your own passion is sufficient enough to push you through the struggles that come with life inside academia.
Two things are guaranteed if you decide to read Lab Girl. One, that you will develop a new respect for plants and the workings and lessons of nature. Two, you will reexamine your own love affair with science, what it can take from you and what it will give you. It’s definitely worth your time.