Lab Girl

hope jahren in lab

Hope Jahren in her research lab.

Science has never been my forte. High school chemistry and biology were challenging enough, so I never went near physics. In college, I took a single general science course and was thankful I wasn’t required to do more.

So why would I put “Lab Girl” on my list of hoped-for Christmas or birthday gifts?

Two reasons: 1) I spotted the title late last year on a New York Times list of notable books and the thumbnail review sounded interesting; 2) I thought it might give me better understanding of the kind of work our youngest son wants to do.

I recently finished the book and I’m happy to say it’s a gem. It’s beautifully written and it’s illuminated the path that lies ahead for Jordan, who’s graduating next month with a bachelors degree in biology and hopes to become a research scientist.

One critic says of the author: “Hope Jahren is the voice that science has been waiting for.”

Indeed.

Jahren is one of those people who is multiply talented, almost astonishingly so.

lab girl coverHer academic credentials? She’s received three Fulbright Awards in geobiology, has a Ph.D in soil science from UC Berkeley, has taught at Johns Hopkins and Georgia Tech, and has been named by Time magazine as one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People.” Still in her 40s, she is a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and currently is a fellow at the University of Oslo, where she studies fossil forests. She’s fluent in Norwegian, by the way.

Her writing chops? Impressive. It’s hard to believe this collection of essays is her first book. Part memoir, part introduction to the science of trees and plants, she has the ability to explain concepts and procedures in lay terms that even I can grasp. And her prose at times is downright dazzling. (You’ll see for yourself in the excerpts the follow.)

She writes with authority born of expertise, with wisdom born of experience, and with self-deprecating humor born of perspective. Binding it all together are the passion that she brings to her work, and the determination and discipline that have fueled her success in a male-dominated profession.

As a female scientist, she has been the only woman in a college class, the only woman at a professional conference, one of few women among a university’s science faculty, and certainly one of few among her colleagues who’s had to take a career break to give birth.

“My desire to become a scientist was founded upon a deep instinct and nothing more; I never heard of a single story about a living female scientist, never met one or even saw one on television.

“As a female scientist I am still unusual, but in my heart I was never anything else. Over the years I have built three laboratories from scratch, given warmth and life to three empty rooms, each one bigger and better than the last. My current laboratory is almost perfect — located in balmy Honolulu and housed within a magnificent building that is frequently crowned by rainbows and surrounded by hibiscus flowers in constant bloom — but somehow I know that I will never stop building and wanting more. My laboratory is not “room T309” as stated on my university’s blueprints; it is “the Jahren Laboratory,” and it always will be, no matter where it is located. It bears my name because it is my home.”

How did she become a scientist? Raised in a small Midwest town with three older brothers, she essentially grew up in the lab where her father taught at the local community college. As a young girl, she became acquainted with the workbenches, the equipment, and the drawers full of magnets, wire, glass, metal and other stuff that all proved useful for something.

Culturally, she was born into a Scandinavian home where silence and emotional distance between family members were the norm, something that, for better or worse, contributed to her self-reliance.

That’s a trait that she had to rely on early in her career as she sought to establish her credentials and find stable employment in her chosen career. She describes several instances of sexism (no surprise) and early on introduces us to a quirky fellow named Bill, who she met as a grad student at Berkeley. The two formed an exceptional bond as fellow scientists and later as friends, and he continues to serve as Jahren’s senior research lab manager in Oslo. He’s instrumental to her telling of the larger story of “Lab Girl.”

Jahren describes the life of the research scientist as one that is both esoteric and often lonely. People don’t know what you do or why, and they don’t have the foggiest idea of how precarious the funding is for such work.

Jahren_aup

Hope Jahren, scientist and author.

***

As I write this on Earth Day, thousands of scientists are marching in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of other cities on six continents to draw attention to the value of science and to their worries that “evidence has been crowded out by ideology and opinion in public debate and policymaking.”

Read The Washington Post’s story: “Why scientists are marching on Washington and more than 600 cities”

In one essay, Jahren explains that there is just one significant source of support for the kind of research she does — the National Science Foundation, which is funded by our federal tax dollars.

In 2013, the NSF’s budget was $7.3 billion, a sum that sounds large until you learn that the Department of Agriculture’s budget is about three times that amount, the Department of Homeland Security’s budget is five times as large, and the Department of Defense’s “discretionary” budget alone is more than 60 times that sum.

Jahren points out that the U.S. government spends twice as much on its space program as it does on all of its other scientists put together. Little wonder that those specializing in other fields are left scrambling to apply for three-year grants and additional university funding to pay for salaries and benefits, student help, chemicals, equipment, travel and administrative overhead charges.

“Ask a science professor what she worries about,” Jahren writes. “It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: ‘Money.’ ”

***

As informative as the book is, the writing itself is superb. The author has a website called hopejahrensurecanwrite.com, where she maintains a lively blog. She also credits her mother with instilling in her an appreciation for reading and writing.

As a high school senior in the 1950s, Hope’s mom was awarded an honorable mention in a prestigious national science competition and hoped to study chemistry at the state university. But lack of money forced her to drop out and she moved back to her hometown, where she married, became a mother and homemaker, and some 20 years later took correspondence courses in English literature to get her college degree.

The daughter learned her lessons well. Consider this excerpt, where Jahren recalls her days as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota (the same place her mom, dad and brothers attended) working in the university hospital during the 3-to-11 p.m. shift as a “runner” hand-delivering IV pain medications to the nursing stations where they were needed.

“That night in the hospital I walked in and out of the hospice ward ten or twenty times, and my eyes and hands moved through the necessary tasks. Well into the night and deeper into my brain, it came to me that as hospital workers, we were being paid to trail along behind Death as he escorted frail, wasted bodies over difficult miles, dragging their loved ones along with him. My job was to meet the traveling party at its designated way station and faithfully provide fresh supplies for the journey. When the weary group disappeared over the horizon, we turned back, knowing that another agonized family would be arriving soon.

“The doctors, nurses, and I didn’t cry because the bewildered husbands and stricken daughters were carrying enough for all of us. Helpless and impotent against the awesome power of Death, we nonetheless bowed out heads in the pharmacy, injected twenty milliliters of salvation int a bag of tears, blessed it again and again, and then carried it like a baby to the hospice and offered it up. The drug would flow into a passive vein, the family wold draw close, and a cup of fluid might be temporarily removed from their ocean of pain.” 

Wow. Gives me chills.

“Lab Girl” is a great book for the young scientist in your life, and even better if that person is a girl. It’s also a great book for yourself, especially if you’re one, like me, who would have benefited from Science  for Dummies. At 282 pages, it’s a fairly fast read and one that will leave you with admiration for the work and life of a remarkable research scientist named Hope Jahren.

(Click on images to view captions.)

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2 thoughts on “Lab Girl

  1. Thanks for the recommendation; looking forward to reading this! I loved science in high school. Went social science in college, and now I’m designing knits. What a strange trip it’s been, and all fun.

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