As an aspiring scientist, as well as an avid reader and writer, I found that I shared many similarities with Hope Jahren, the author of Lab Girl. After skimming the blurb on the cover, I was drawn to this memoir. Lab Girl follows the scientific adventures of Jahren, an American geochemist and geobiologist at the University of Hawaii. She has received three Fulbright Awards in geobiology and is one of four scientists (and the only woman) to have been awarded two Young Investigator Medals in the earth sciences. While her list of awards is impressive, Lab Girl reveals that to accomplish all this, Jahren had to overcome numerous obstacles, including her manic-depression, minimal financing, and two car accidents.
In this memoir, Jahren narrates her journey to becoming a geobiologist, describing her studies, struggles, disappointments, and discoveries. At the heart of the story lies her relationship with Bill, an intelligent but wounded man who becomes her trusted lab partner. With Bill, Jahren embarks on multiple wild quests across the world to make both scientific and personal discoveries.
Lab Girl not only opened my eyes to the magnificence of every seed, root, and branch in existence, but also showed how passion, dedication, and diligence are the real ingredients for success. I love Jahren’s writing style and how she explains the science of paleobiology using easy-to-understand terminology without overwhelming the reader with too much jargon. Moreover, she dexterously utilizes metaphors and similes along with vivid adjectives and poetic language to describe memorable moments in her life. She successfully communicates the electric excitement of a new discovery, as well as the tedious grunt work necessary to perform experiments. As I read each chapter, I felt part of her adventures, joining her in digging holes, collecting moss samples, encountering policemen, and driving recklessly across the country.
Additionally, her passionately detailed descriptions of seeds and trees made me look at nature differently. She is not afraid to poke fun at herself and Bill, and she shares many humorous moments from her unconventional field trips, which kept me laughing and engaged with the book. Jahren uses a conversational, genuine tone, allowing her unique, quirky personality to shine through her words.
Jahren uses the growth of a tree as a metaphor for her life and as a way of conveying the resilience and grandeur of nature. Every other chapter is short: two to three pages detailing a specific characteristic of or difficulty experienced by a seed, branch, root, or tree. For example, one chapter is dedicated to the symbiotic relationship between fungi and trees, which Jahren parallels to her relationship with Bill and how they rely on each other. This is a creative and effective way of organizing this memoir while simultaneously showing the readers the splendor of our world.
This wonderfully written memoir has further inspired me to pursue science and appreciate the natural world. I was blown away by the clarity of Jahren’s writing, her passion, and her vulnerability. I would highly recommend Lab Girl to anyone, regardless of whether you are interested in science. All that’s required to enjoy it is curiosity and an appreciation for how others live.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.