Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography
A New York Times Notable Book
Geobiologist Hope Jahren has spent her life studying trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Lab Girl is her revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also a celebration of the lifelong curiosity, humility, and passion that drive every scientist. In these pages, Hope takes us back to her Minnesota childhood, where she spent hours in unfettered play in her father’s college laboratory. She tells us how she found a sanctuary in science, learning to perform lab work “with both the heart and the hands.” She introduces us to Bill, her brilliant, eccentric lab manager. And she extends the mantle of scientist to each one of her readers, inviting us to join her in observing and protecting our environment. Warm, luminous, compulsively readable, Lab Girl vividly demonstrates the mountains that we can move when love and work come together.
Winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Science Books & Film Prize for Excellence in Science Books
Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, TIME.com, NPR, Slate, Entertainment Weekly, Newsday, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from "Lab Girl"
Copyright © 2017 Hope Jahren.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
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Reading Group Guide
The questions, topics for discussion, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Lab Girl, a beautifully crafted blend of memoir and science writing wherein Hope Jahren, a renowned research scientist, moves with ease between the wonders and rigors of scientific investigation and the demands and joys that have shaped her personal life.
1. Lab Girl opens with a detailed description of the laboratory Jahren loved as a child. How does she transform a cinder-block room stocked with scientific equipment into a “castle” (p. 8)? In what ways do her recollections of her time in the lab and the trips home late at night with her father evoke the mood and magic of fairy tales?
2. Jahren writes of the emotional distances between members of a Scandinavian family, of “growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves” (p.11). Are Jahren’s feelings about her family shaped solely by cultural tradition?
3. Does Jahren’s observation that “being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right” (p. 16) capture something you have experienced, either as a parent or child? Why do you think Jahren dedicated Lab Girl to her mother?
4. Jahren writes, “I chose science because science gave me what I needed—a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be” (p. 18). Discuss and evaluate the combination of elements that determine her choice, including her attachment to her father and the recognition that “being a scientist wasn’t his job, it was his identity,” the acceptance by her science professors of “the very attributes that rendered me a nuisance to all of my previous teachers,” and her simple declaration that the desire to become a scientist “was founded upon a deep instinct and nothing more.” Compare this initial explanation with the self-portrait she offers in the final chapter (p. 277).
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5. In alternating chapters, Jahren forges links between her own life and the plants that have populated it. How does the story of the blue spruce tree (pp. 27–29) set a pattern that is echoed and enhanced throughout the book? What insights do these close examinations of a large variety of plants provide into the needs and the capabilities shared by all living things? Is there a particular topic—for instance, the universal struggle for survival or the interdependence evident in nature—that resonates with you?
6. In recalling her first scientific breakthrough, Jahren writes, “On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known” (p. 71). What are the emotional and practical repercussions of this moment? Is there a moment in most people’s lives that marks a line between who they are and who they might have been?
7. Jahren describes her struggles with mental illness in a gripping and vivid interlude (pp. 144–47). Why do you think she introduces this at the midpoint of her book?
8. Jahren’s relationship with Bill is a sustained theme in Lab Girl. In what ways do Bill’s manner and methods in the lab complement Jahren’s? What qualities shape their behavior toward each other on a personal level? Discuss the sense of intimacy and tolerance at the core of their friendship, as well as the boundaries they establish. What do their long conversations, their reactions to institutional rules, and the misadventures they share on their field trips all add to the book? In what ways does their trip to the Arctic capture the essence of their bond (pp. 195–201)?
9. What previously hidden aspects of Jahren’s character come to light as she describes her meeting and marriage to Clint (pp. 205–209)?
10. Jahren writes of her pregnancy, “I know that I am supposed to be happy and excited. . . . I am supposed to celebrate the ripening fruit of love and luxuriate in the fullness of my womb. But I don’t do any of this” (p. 217). How do such factors as her childhood, her professional ambitions, and her mental illness affect her experience? Why does she “decide that I will not be this child’s mother. Instead, I will be his father” (p. 228).
11. What obstacles does Jahren face in her career as a research scientist? Are some of the setbacks Jahren faces attributable to her being a woman in a male-dominated field?
12. Do you agree that “America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it” (p. 123)?
13. Science writing is sometimes criticized for seeming to anthropomorphize scientific subjects. Do you think that Jahren avoids this potential pitfall? In what ways do her choice of words and use of metaphor balance the scientific facts that she wants to convey with having the reader understand and even delight in these facts? What facts did you find most interesting?
14. As you read Lab Girl, were you equally engaged with the autobiographical sections and the chapters on plants and trees, or did you find yourself more drawn to one or the other?
15. Lab Girl makes use of a wide range of language and tones, from the scientific to the colloquial, from biblical references to profanity. Does this range subvert our expectations about how scientists “should” talk? What do the different tones reveal about Hope? How does her varied language help us to see her in multiple lights—as scientist and writer, as friend and human?
16. Memoir is a highly intimate form. Do you feel you’ve gotten to know Hope through Lab Girl? Does she seem similar or different to science teachers you have had? Do you see her as an inspiration for young women who want to pursue a career in science?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Hope Jahren
It is no secret that the field of science is dominated by men. But famed geobiologist Hope Jahren, who has won such prestigious awards as the James B. Macelwane Medal, takes what can often be an oppressive system in stride. "It's not about whether they approve of my work at Harvard or at whatever journal. This is not about whether my boss is nice to me. This is about me knowing more than I did yesterday."
In her nationally bestselling book, Lab Girl, Jahren digs into everything from her Minnesota childhood, when she spent hours playing and conducting experiments in her father's laboratory, to her love of author Jean Genet. But the meat of the book focuses on her incredible determination and drive to study plants, despite the often shocking hurdles that male scientists put in her way. We are also introduced to Bill, her brilliant, eccentric lab partner, who provides inspiration and support when she needs it most. Most striking is how successfully Jahren extends the mantle of scientist to each one of her readers, using terminology that is not only accessible but emotionally arresting. One finds it impossible to read this book and not develop a deeper and more protective connection to the natural world.
Barnes & Noble Review editor Bill Tipper caught up with Hope Jahren while she was busy opening a new lab in Norway, to discuss the multiple meanings of language, sexism in science, and why finishing a book is like losing a loved one.
The Barnes & Noble Review: What is geobiology?
Hope Jahren: It's the combination of geology and biology. You can look around you and see all kinds of things that aren't alive water, atmosphere, rocks, etcetera, and look at all the things that are alive plants, little worms, yourself, etcetera, and geobiology is interested in the processes that turn the one into the other.
BNR: Was examining that intersection where you wanted to go when you first undertook your scientific career?
HJ: Well, I was always interested in geology and in physics and chemistry, and those, of course, are the manipulation of things that aren't alive. It's much, much easier. We have really good ideas about how gases behave and how liquids behave, and what chemicals do when you mix them. A lot of that stuff was worked out in the 1700s, in the earliest phases of the Enlightenment. But then, when you try to apply those same things and you throw a living organism into the mix, that's when it all gets amazingly complicated.
It's like Alice in Wonderland, where it starts out with things you understand and it's very familiar. Then, all of a sudden, weird stuff starts to happen, and these characters are introduced, and everything becomes very unpredictable. I think when you introduce living organisms into scientific experiments, it's a very similar thing.
BNR: In the book, you so brilliantly draw connections between the natural world and our thinking about everything from love to work to economics.
HJ: I grew up with biblical literature. I was always taught to interpret its symbols, and that meaning is a tiered thing that exists on many levels, in everything we do, some of it conscious, some of it subconscious, and all of these different levels of meaning contribute to understanding, which is a much more holistic thing. That probably also goes back to some of the earliest reading that my mother and I did on Susan Sontag, who talks a lot about metaphor and things like that. That's how I was taught to read in general. You read difficult things and you might not know what they mean right away. But through the course of your life, you will be presented with different scenarios and different information, and if you're patient and you just live life, things will make sense along the way.
With communication, you've got something you want to say, and it's this disembodied message that doesn't really fit into words. The challenge is to approximate whatever that is as best you can. It's almost like shooting an arrow toward a target. Sometimes you miss the target altogether, and sometimes you can really stick it in the bull's-eye. It's with practice, shooting that same arrow, that you realize what the bull's-eyes are.
My whole, passionate focus was: How do I distill this plant stuff? I've spent decades of my life studying them, but not everybody is going to. The world needs to turn on a lot of other wheels. So if I had a chance to say one thing, to distill it down to its purest, most elegant, spherical form, what would I say? The funny thing is, I think, if you do that work, and you really polish it and it's just a clear bell ringing on one concept, you just look at the words and you'll find it means more than one thing.
BNR: That seems to me an extraordinary insight, and a very useful way of thinking about it for writers. That in that effort to distill and capture the idea, the language itself is going to give you all of this extra meaning.
HJ: One standard that I held myself to was that I was going to write a book, and it was going to say everything important that I wanted somebody to know about plants, whether they were taking my class, or in college, or on the street, or whatever, and I was going to not use one word that they had to look up. I was going to come to them and use their words. I held myself to that standard. So when I ran up against a scientific word, I forced myself to choose the best commonly invoked term, and then shape it as precisely I could with accessible adjectives and things like that, and then let go.
BNR: It's astonishing how well you succeeded at that. In talking about how trees make energy you write: "The plant pigment chlorophyll is a large molecule, and within the bowl of its spoon-shaped structure sits one single precious magnesium atom. The amount of magnesium needed for enough chlorophyll to fuel 35 pounds of leaves is equivalent to the amount of magnesium found in 14 one-a-day vitamins, and it must ultimately dissolve out of bedrock, which is a geologically slow process." Was it natural for you to talk about the bowl of chlorophyll's spoon-shaped structure, or was that a kind of image you had to work to craft?
HJ: I use a lot of allusions to feminine objects, to objects associated with female labor: "spoon" of course, and then the one that people often touch on is "a leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace," which is dishes and lace.
BNR: Did you want to work against the kind of gender prejudices that are in a lot of scientific writing?
HJ: It was not a conscious thing. The first work that I did with my hands was in my father's lab, but it was also with my mother in the garden and in the kitchen, so those were the objects of my early toolkit. I naturally gravitate toward them. I've also always let myself do that, use the objects of my life. But it does create this nice juxtaposition of these very female images with these scientific concepts, which I really like and I think makes me a special voice in the end.
BNR: My favorite adjective in that sentence [with the phrase] "the one single precious magnesium atom" is "precious." That's a word that lights up that whole sentence for me.
HJ: The magnesium is associated with feeding that's what the plant is doing, trying to feed itself. So there's this nourishing, maternal thing at work. When I'm saying something like that, I'm trying to poke your subconscious into coming along for the ride. I've invoked these symbols that you associate with nourishment, and then I'm going to talk about how the tree nourishes itself. That's a type of learning that's really effective. You've got to try to engage people both on a conscious level and a subconscious level, otherwise they'll wander. I also talk a lot about the five senses, how things taste, how they smell, what plants sound like, etcetera.
BNR: There's a wonderful sort of bookshelf peeking out in different places in this book. In your first encounter with your long-term research partner, Bill, you're reading a book about Jean Genet.
HJ: Yes. Those are all true stories. I didn't invoke them for any literary purpose. It's just what I happened to be doing at the time.
BNR: Were there particular books that were strong influences on you as this book came to be?
HJ: I was greatly influenced by Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, because he's got this fantastic heroine, Becky Sharp. I wrote an essay on her; it's on my blog somewhere. I just love her.
I had read so much Victorian literature, and it was sort of constricting. There's Dickens, who has these amazing characters, but the women are either too good or too bad, and they're either young ingénues or these old-maid types, and there's no real place in between. But when I got to Vanity Fair my mind just opened up. Things don't end particularly well for Becky Sharp, but she doesn't care. She just asks the question: "How do I get what I want within this very constrained power structure that is supposed to keep me from getting what I want?" She had this freewheeling approach. I thought: If I can be the Becky Sharp of scientific research, then we'll see how far that goes.
BNR: With a year behind you since the book's release, and having talked about it in these kinds of conversations with many other people, do you see it differently? Is it more of an artifact for you?
HJ: I think the main feeling I've had since the release of the book is really grief, because it was so joyful to sit, and write, and play with the words, and play with the sentences, and read them out loud, and use my mind that way. These were some of the happiest months of my life, and then it was just over. It gives me joy to hear that the book is doing what I hoped it would do: teach people about plants, but it's been more of a grieving process. This book was my best friend for a long time. I got up early in the morning with it, and it was there when I went to bed. I feel really melancholy about it.
BNR: This really seems to be a story of dealing with the contingency of life and the idea that this work, which requires persistence and long-term effort, can somehow continue in the face of the absolute unpredictability of things.
HJ: Well, that's one of the main things of the work, this contrast between work and grace. To what extent do things come to you because you work for them, and to what extent do things fall into your life out of grace? I think my personal answer for that is that you work to keep yourself busy while you're waiting for grace.
BNR: Why did you decide to write a book versus continuing your own scientific writing?
HJ: Scientific writing is great. It's actually a lot like writing poetry, because you have to condense. You have to put many years of work by many people into a few pages. Then it's done in this weird, passive, very omniscient third person. Because the point is not how you feel about it. It's all about advancing the idea.
So by doing that writing, there were huge parts of me I was never going to get to use. I was never going to get to write dialogue. I was never going to get to be funny. You can only report results in the scientific setting, and there are so many things we did that didn't yield results, but we still learned from them. Scientific writing is a wonderful tradition, but it's confining.
I remember thinking, "I'm just going to let myself do this. I'm going to drop the ball on all this other stuff people want me to do for six months, and I'm going to stop denying myself this book. And then, whatever happens, happens." It just got to a point where it was more painful not to write. It took more energy to suppress it than to write it.
BNR: There is a thread that runs through this book about the sexism that exists within the scientific community, and it reflects the power inequities writ large in our culture. I'm curious to know if you feel that things are moving in one direction or another with women in science in particular.
HJ: Is there sexism in science? Yes. Is it getting better? No. There's this fundamental and culturally learned power imbalance between men and women in our society, and it finds expression within every human endeavor. I tried to talk about the particular ways in which it finds expression within science. It's flavors of the usual things. It has to do with safety. It has to do with discomfort around female reproduction. It has to do with the policing of female sexuality. All that kind of stuff. And I give examples of when each of those things comes into play.
For me, I think it's a kind of Becky Sharp strategy. When the rules aren't fair, you can't hold yourself to the rules. Now, that doesn't always work, and there's a price to be paid, and all that kind of thing, but what I try to drill in is that the real rewards of the job are not ones that could be taken away from me.
I'm also an example of somebody that would have put up with just an endless amount of shit to be able to do that job, just because I loved it so much. But I still resent what I did have to put up with. We need to attack these fundamental power imbalances that exist. Sexual violence, reproductive rights, and compensation for equal labor.
BNR: What you're suggesting is that these things aren't any more specific to science than they are to any other particular corner of our world. Simply, as long as we have male supremacy as a feature of our society, it's going to have all of these dysfunctional effects.
HJ: Exactly. I also didn't quit science because there's nowhere to run. Where are you going to go? Where is this Disneyland where I'm going to get equal pay for equal work and all this kind of stuff?
But the other thing is that I never idolized these guys that were giving me crap. The people that I respected did not fit the mold of who was powerful within the structure. That's what I often tell people, that you have to keep in close touch with the part of it that makes you hapy. If it's being in the lab, if it's working with your hands, let yourself stop and feel the joy that comes from getting to do that for two hours. If you just focus on that, you'll always be doing the job for the right reason. The rest of it is just shit you gotta do! [Laughs]
June 1, 2017