Scientist Hope Jahren is in her element when in the open air exploring, touching and tabulating the dynamic biological processes of trees, grasses and the resplendent diversity of the plant kingdom. She revels in digging into the earth to determine the varying consistencies of soil, rock and sand, peering deep in order to scry what secrets abound there. Indoors and away from the rudiments of raw nature, Jahren works in her laboratory to take measure of her current crop of samples for new bits of information pervading the wild and evolving outdoor world: “My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe.” Despite mountains of botanical and geological data already amassed, much remains to be discovered and understood.
A geobiologist at the University of Hawaii, Jahren has been the recipient of numerous honors including three Fulbright Awards. Her chronicle “Lab Girl” is an exquisite memoir of 20 years of studious investigations. It provides a sometimes rambunctious record of the field research and laborious lab projects, of domestic and international travel, of the tribulations of teaching and of her individual struggles. It is a splendid accomplishment of expository science writing and courageous personal revelation. “As a female scientist I am still unusual, but in my heart I was never anything else.” Fully immersed in her vocation, the author’s enthusiasm for her profession and the painstaking quest for knowledge is palpable.
Throughout the book there are striking passages that leap rapturously off the page. Jahren writes as one imbued with biophilia. She celebrates the strength and stamina of a tiny seed: “A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance — to take its one and only chance to grow.” Of a lotus seedling found in a peat bog in China, Jahren reports that scientists “coddled the embryo into growth” and later learned it was more than two thousand years old. “This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell.”
Accompanying Jahren throughout much of her journey is her lab partner and soul mate Bill. His last name is not given. Never lovers, over time they established a deep bond of loyalty and service to each other while sharing a mutual dedication and passion for their explorations. Bill comes across as a loveable eccentric whose perennial adaptability assured Jahren of a faithful and knowledgeable co-worker in the lab as well as in the field. In the midst of trial, uncertainty and doubt, Bill is a stalwart friend who brings strength and humor to the fore when needed. He has been indispensible, a steadying presence in Jahren’s occasionally tumultuous personal life.
She writes honestly of her bouts with depression and bipolar illness. No stranger to overwork, Jahren tells of the odd and onerous hours often kept while performing lab duties. Funding for the work she and Bill endeavored often dribbled in with no certitude that she could properly cover Bill’s paycheck or her own. Encounters with psychological disability did not help matters. Jahren describes the intensity of such a disruptive psychic and physical state: “Full-blown mania lets you see the other side of death. Its onset is profoundly visceral and unexpected, no matter how many times you’ve been through it. It is your body that first senses the urgency of a new world about to bloom.” Frenetic ecstasy inevitably gives way to confusion and deep sadness. Through professional care and medication the darkness lifts eventually and she returns to ever faithful Bill who has kept their lab functioning.
The hallowed halls of science are not impervious to sexism and even the most accomplished women can be rudely dismissed. Jahren describes her numerous experiences encountering looks of doubt or surprise when introduced as a scientist of note: “Her? That can’t be right; there must be some mistake here somewhere.” In an article for The New York Times written last year, she elaborated on the issue of widespread sexual harassment throughout the scientific establishment. Therein Jahren lamented how distracting and demoralizing it is to be subject to unwanted amorous advances as a woman working seriously toward a master’s degree or doctorate in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field. A sense of “isolation and intimidation” is persistent and many erudite women feel their only choice is to leave the profession. Says Jahren, “The scientific method may be impartial, but the scientific culture is not.” The loss to science and society is great.
Jahren cautions about humanity’s recklessness toward our environment. An experiment measuring the growth of sweet potatoes in a space with high levels of carbon dioxide found the potatoes grew large but were low in protein. This bodes ill for impoverished nations. And every 10 years deforestation eradicates “a land area about the size of France.” This is not a sustainable situation. Jahren urges us all to pay attention and consider planting a tree this year. An obvious lover of words and literature as well as science, Jahren can wax lyrically detailing the wondrous dimensions of the natural world. Her words can flow like a gentle sun dappled stream. This book is a joyous achievement.