Unsurprisingly, I found Lab Girl by Hope Jahren through NPR’s List of Best Books of 2016. This is a non-fiction memoir about Jahren’s life in research and science, beginning as a lab tech at a hospital to finally being in charge of her own lab at a University. I enjoyed this book very much, much more than I was expecting.
There are many different aspects to this book, each of them fascinating in their own right. First, Jahren is a successful woman scientist, a minority in her field. It was interesting to read her perspective. “In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.” She is perceptive and strong, and often nails the challenges of what it’s like to be a woman in her position. “I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman.” In addition to being a woman in science, Jahren also discusses the constant stress of getting funding together in order to keep her lab running. It was an inside look into something I never thought much about.
Another aspect of Jahren’s life that she shares in this book is her struggles with Bi-polar disorder. She is incredibly successful and driven, but (especially before she was diagnosed) she struggled with her disease. It became an issue again when she got pregnant and had to go off of her meds. I admired Jahren’s inclusion of this struggle in her book, but it wasn’t her whole life and it didn’t define her.
The part of the book that surprised me the most–as far as how much I enjoyed her writing–was Jahren’s short essays about plant life. Jahren’s whole life is focused on trees and plants, and there is no doubt that she loves her work. She can tell the story of a single seed like it’s the most compelling soap opera on television. She almost made me want to go back to school just to learn more about the kind of work she does. I’m not especially interested in science or plants, but Jahren was able to explain to me why they are fascinating and important.
The majority of the book reads as something of a love letter to her lab partner Bill. They met while she was in graduate school, and have worked together ever since. They are the ideal work partners, balancing each other out and perfectly understanding how the other works. Their relationship is something that’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s always been platonic, both before and after Jahren’s marriage to her husband. But it is also very intimate. They spend an incredible amount of time together, travel together, and I think it would be unthinkable for them to stop working together now. I would have been interested to see how Bill viewed this relationship.
I definitely recommend this book. I enjoyed Jahren’s honest writing about her life and her story is worth learning about.
“Tiny but determined, I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing that it’s more than people want to see.”
“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.”
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.