So I finished this audiobook a week ago, and even though I usually try to review immediately (hence my 6 months I hate the world review hiatus last year) I still need to confront this one.
Hope Jahren is a biology research professor. This is both a memoir and a love story to plants and the world. It is read by the author. It is open and honest about so much, while at the same time glossing over so much more. She begins with where her love of science began, her father, and then tells of how she grew, moved away to grad school, and then the building of multiple labs at multiple universities over the years. Along the way she adopts a research partner, Bill, and she shares of their growth both personally and professionally over the years.
I can’t review this objectively. As a fellow scientist, albeit one who left her PhD for a myriad of reasons after many years, I know the ins and outs of academia well. Also I know Jahren well for her public stances against sexual harassment in STEM. And in Lab Girl she is honest and open about so many things from her mental health, to pregnancy, to hearing what coworkers say about her as a woman. And yet it’s the little things I find I wanted more of. In passing she speaks of in grad school bringing a wrench with her for protection when she had to go use a piece of equipment in the middle of the night, because the person in charge of the equipment had a reputation. It’s a throwaway sentence, but that’s real. I remember that feeling of asking people to be with me working in the middle of the night so I wasn’t alone, my undergrad or other grad students. The struggle she has to find funding over the years gave me anxiety just thinking back to writing grant proposals for my advisor in the hopes of my getting paid and not having to teach the whole time.
What it most did though was force me to think about the future generations of women. It made me sit down last Friday with our undergrad intern who is applying to grad school right now, and talk to her honestly about what it means. I wish someone had for me, although I probably would not have listened as cocky as I was. But I think it would have helped over the years. We tell women we need more of you in science, go to grad school, you’ll be brilliant, but we don’t talk about the fact that very little has changed in the past 30+ years academia wise in the “hard sciences”. So I made the intern hear about the latent misogyny, the attempts of colleagues to undermine each other, and yes, the very real harassment. Not everyone I know in science has had my experience, but every single woman I know has experienced something to make them seriously consider leaving STEM forever. I’m still a scientist now, but I don’t think I will be as a career forever.
If you’re looking for an account of what a life in science is like for a woman Jahren’s is a good place to start. Parts of it feel fairytale-esque in this day and age (getting a professorship right out of undergrad just doesn’t happen anymore), but it’s a good place to start to see where a passion for science can get you.