Whoever thought, like us, that chemistry labs are dingy, boring places with strange smells emanating from them, should read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren to get an insight into how passionate scientists can be about their labs. Hope Jahren, is a geochemist and geobiologist with an obsession for trees and plant life. Her memoir, Lab Girl alternates between fascinating fact about trees and personal recollections of what it means to be a woman scientist and professor, the issues of funding for her lab, dealing with students, and her own obsessions. Together with these difficulties she writes also about the joys of science and of the companionship of her lab partner, Bill, which becomes a life long friendship. Each personal chapter alternates with one about trees and that is where Jahren truly waxes lyrical. Her awe for the existence and survival capabilities of trees and their seed really comes through in her writing.
“For trees that live in the snow, winter is a journey. Plants do not travel through space as we do; as a rule they do not move from place to place. Instead they travel through time, enduring one event after the other, and in this sense, winter is a particularly long trip. Trees follow the standard advice given for any extended travel within a rustic setting: pack carefully.”
The book is a fascinating look into a life obsessed – we can think of no other word. How Jahren and Bill survived without sleep, proper food, limited funding and no security that any more funding would be forthcoming, is mind boggling just to read about let alone the stress of living through it. Jahren is also very matter of fact, in the book, about her bipolar disorder. Though scary at times, at no point is the reader invited to feel any pity. It’s just how it is and the lab activities continues.
Though she is consumed by her work, Jahren does not come across as someone who knows only science. To us one of the most appealing portions in the book is her use of quotations (from David Copperfield by Dickens) applied to happenings in daily life while working part time at a hospital pharmacy during her undergraduate years. Then there is the very unusual aspect, in today’s consumerist world, of how little meaning material possessions have for Jahren and her colleagues. Unless it is something that finds place or use in their lab, the show no interest or inclination for acquisitions. It is very refreshing as a reader to read about people who are so different from the norm.
This is a book well worth reading and even those of us who come with a predisposition to like trees will see them in a different way after reading Jahren’s beautiful prose describing their lives, tenacity and capability to exist. All of which is now seriously endangered.