Lab Girl

A memoir about what it’s like being a woman and mother in science, and what it’s like trying to gain acceptance in a field dominated by men.

READ IF YOU…

  • Enjoy memoirs
  • Want a quietly powerful story
  • Enjoy science-life books
  • Like botany, nature, and plants

TitleLab Girl | Author: Hope JahrenRating: 3/5

When I picked up this book, I expected something louder, more bombastic, about a life winning prizes and funding and discovering the richness of nature no one has dared discover before.

Instead, I found a book of quiet strength, of a woman who figured her way through science and life, and who made a name for herself not through snubbing others, fighting patriarchy, or arguing, but through stubbornness and skill.

Hope Jahren is an “acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil.” The book covers some of her research, from when she was a young grad student, to postdoc, to running her own lab and teaching students. There’s something about Jahren that classifies her as quietly strong, with a smoldering intensity you likely don’t notice at first, but that simmers under the surface. Not in a bad way, but in a quiet intelligence sort of way.

Lab Girl is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work. 

I did expect more of the hard science, which was in the book, but was woven through the memoir aspects of the writing. I both liked and disliked this – I wanted more science, more of the methodology, when sometimes there was memoir instead. And some aspects of the book didn’t flow well – like there was some sort of disconnect in the writing.

In reading about Jahren, I’ve found a woman scientist I admire, who worked her way up in a historically man’s field, and established herself as an expert in paleobiology. As any memoir of a woman in science, it features the negative bias about being a woman, being a mother, a wife, in science.

At one point, when Jahren was pregnant, her boss told her husband (who worked at the same university) to tell Jahren she would no longer be allowed to work in a lab because “she was a liability.” But really, men weren’t used to seeing pregnant women in a lab, and didn’t feel comfortable. Of course, later on, she says she realized she may have been an insurance liability, but I think that’s patriarchy talking. Pregnant women aren’t liabilities unless the system around them has failed them.

Still, Jahren carries herself with a steadfastness that rewards her as she is awarded three Fulbright Awards, which funds graduate students to pursue research in other countries, and is the only woman, and one of four scientists, to be awarded both Young Investigator Medals given in the Earth Sciences. She now works at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories.

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