Lab Girl is one of those books that makes you sit back and wonder what you’ve been doing with your life. It’s not enough that Hope Jahren is an accomplished geobiologist and geochemist, or that she has a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley. It’s not enough that she’s won three Fulbright Awards, or that Popular Science magazine named her one of its “Brilliant 10” scientists in 2006. It’s not enough that in 2016 Time named her one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People.” With all those accomplishments, you’d think she’d have the decency to at least publish a memoir full of hackneyed metaphors and stilted language to assure me that one person can’t possibly be brilliant in every facet of their life. But no, what she’s given us instead is a beautiful, moving, poetic memoir and psalm to flora, and I couldn’t be more upset about it.
On its most basic level, Lab Girl is an inspirational memoir about a young girl who becomes a scientist. Growing up in a time when girls weren’t driven to study science, Hope first became interested in her future profession by visiting the lab of her father, a community college professor. In the first chapter she recounts how her father would indulge her desire to inspect all the equipment. “These were not kids toys; they were serious things for grownups, but you were a special kid because your dad had that huge ring of keys, so you could play with the equipment any time you went there with him, because he never, ever said no when you asked him to take it all out.” From these humble beginnings, Jahren went on to study at the University of Minnesota for her undergraduate degree, and then to Berkeley for a doctorate in soil science. From there, life took her to the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she had her first lab that was all her own, and then to Johns Hopkins, and eventually to the University of Hawaii.
Along the way Hope meets Bill Hagopian who becomes her lab partner (although technically she is the boss and can never pay him as much as he deserves) and best friend. Their friendship is the heart of the book: intimate without being sexual, many acquaintances (and perhaps even the reader) struggle to put a label on their relationship, but lack of a word for what they have never seems to trouble the pair. They forge ahead together through all the trials of research, funding (or lack thereof), and emotional turmoil. When Hope introduces her husband to the reader, we know he is “the one” because of the ease with which he accepts Bill as part of the package.
Lab Girl is filled with joy and silliness: one field trip that Hope and Bill take with undergraduates ends with a completely unnecessary yet unmissable visit to something called Monkey Jungle. Other road trips prove more dangerous, as when a cross-country journey to a conference is delayed by a near-fatal collision in a loaner van, an incident that would spell the end to that particular adventure for a lesser group of travelers. Not our intrepid group: led by Bill, they persevere and arrive at the conference in time for Hope to deliver her lecture. Between the light-hearted moments, the book is often raw and unflinching, as Jahren doesn’t shy away from her own battles with bipolar disorder or the emotional struggles that Bill faces.
More than a simple biography, Lab Girl is interspersed with chapters celebrating seeds and roots and flowers and fruits to parallel with the stages of Jahren’s life. The metaphor is well earned and unfolds as magnificently as the petals of a rose. “One grain of pollen is all that is necessary to fertilize an ovum and then develop into a seed. One seed may grow into a tree. One tree can produce one hundred thousand flowers each year. Each flower can produce one hundred thousand grains of pollen. Successful plant sex may be rare, but when it does happen it triggers a supernova of new possibilities.”
Ultimately, this book is about discovery: how the sudden understanding of an idea can change one’s life, and possibly even the universe.