I was recently gifted this book by a professor whom my mother is friends with. As an aspiring female scientist myself as well as an avid reader and writer, I found that I shared many similarities with Hope Jahren, and after skimming the blurb on the front cover, I immediately became attracted to and interested in this memoir. Lab Girl follows the scientific adventures of Hope Jahren, an American geochemist and geobiologist working at the University of Hawaii. To name some of her accomplishments, she has received three Fulbright Awards in geobiology and is one of four scientists as well as the only woman to have been awarded both the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences. While this list of awards seem impressive, Lab Girl will reveal that what is truly impressive is how Jahren got to where she is today by overcoming numerous obstacles including her manic-depression, minimal financing and two car accidents.
Indeed, in this memoir, Jahren narrates her journey towards becoming a geobiologist, describing her studies, her struggles, her disappointments and her discoveries. More significantly, at the heart of the story lies the relationship she formed with an intelligent but wounded man named Bill, who becomes her most trusted lab partner. This is a relationship that she is unable to simply categorize as “best friends” or “siblings”, but also one that is of utmost importance to her. It is with Bill that Jahren embarks on multiple wild quests across the world to make both scientific and self discoveries. This novel not only opens our eyes to the magnificence of every seed, root, leaf and branch in existence, but it also shows how passion, dedication, and diligence are the real ingredients for success.
The first aspect of the novel that I love is the writing itself. I love how Jahren explains the science of paleobiology using easy-to-understand terminology and doesn’t overwhelm us with scientific jargon. Moreover, she dexterously utilizes metaphors and similes along with vivid adjectives and poetic language to describe certain trees she finds fascinating and memorable moments in her life. She successfully communicates the electric excitement of a new discovery as well as the tedious grunt work involved in performing experiments. As I read each chapter, I felt like I was part of her adventures, joining her in digging holes, collecting moss samples, encountering policemen, and driving recklessly across the country. I found Jahren’s life story to be utterly fascinating. It was thrilling to read about her rash road trips, her scientific predicaments and explorations, and her bond with Bill.
Additionally, the way she describes seeds and trees with such detail and passion really made me start to look at nature differently. She is also not afraid to poke fun at herself and Bill, and shares many humorous events from her unconventional field trips, which kept me laughing and constantly engaged with the book. In general, Jahren uses a fairly conversational and a very genuine tone, allowing her unique, quirky personality to shine through her words.
Another aspect of the novel that I love is how Jahren organized the book. She 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 in the novel is a short one: only two to three pages detailing a specific characteristic of or a difficulty experienced by a seed, branch, root or tree. For example, one such chapter is dedicated to discussing the symbiotic relationship between fungi and trees, which Jahren then parallels to her relationship with Bill and how they rely on each other in a similar fashion. I think this is a very creative and effective way of organizing her memoir while simultaneously showing the readers the splendor of the natural world.
Overall, I really adored this wonderfully written memoir that has further inspired me to pursue the path of science and appreciate the natural world. I was completely blown away by the clarity of Jahren’s writing, by her passion, and by her vulnerability, all of which shine through her novel. I would highly recommend this book to anyone, regardless of whether you are interested in science or not. All that’s required to enjoy this book is curiosity about how other people live.