I got this one at a used book sale, maybe at the library, years ago. And it’s been sitting on my shelf since then. I am not really sure what drew me to it, though the simplicity of the cover design is kind of appealing, so maybe that was it. No matter, as I said it sat unread for years. And I’m over here doing my level best to read through my backlist owed-TBR, which is not overly successful, if I’m being honest, but I’m working on it. And here’s one I can check off now!
“It was kind of tragic, I reflected, that we all spent our lives working but never really got good at our work, or even finished it. The purpose instead was for me to stand on the rock that he had thrown into the rushing river, bend and claw another rock from the bottom, and then cast it down a bit further and hope it would be a useful next step for some person with whom Providence might allow me to cross paths.”
Lab Girl is a memoir from scientist Hope Jahren. Starting with her (emotionally and temperate-ly cold) childhood in rural Minnesota, through her time in school and learning the mix of heart and hands that “real” science takes, and on into her career in science, from the lows (scarcity of funding, travel disasters) to the highs (the students, the places she gets to visit, the discoveries). Throughout it all, we watch as Jahren faces not just with her career, but mental health struggles, dealing with the emotional closed-off-ness she learned in childhood, the start of her own family and, most centrally, her relationship with her lab partner and best friend, Bill.
I have to be honest and say that I was overall lukewarm about this book. There were a number of really cool aspects to it. And Jahren’s accomplishments in her field (geochemistry and geobiology) are myriad and, to the best that I understood them, fascinating. The tidbits about her research, and the general knowledge about plants and seeds and soil, that created the framework for this memoir were interesting. And I appreciated what she tried, stylistically, using science/nature facts to parallel her life changes/milestones, but it just didn’t quite work for me (though it did get clearer and more settled as it went). I wonder if perhaps my timing was off for reading this, so close on the heels of finishing Braiding Sweetgrass, because although the perspectives and tone are very different, the general topics and format were reminiscent of each other to point that it was hard not to compare (and Braiding Sweetgrass just had a flow that worked better for me). Potentially it was the tone with which the story was told. Jahren’s writing felt…prickly…almost. And I just never got into a rhythm with it. (Of note, I did deeply appreciate this tone when she was discussing the way science funding works, and is ~not~ available, in the US – because the conversation about it, the impossibility of being asked to gain knowledge/make discoveries while not being given enough to make a living at it, do deserve to be deeply called out and addressed).
I did really like the development of the central relationship, that of Jahren and Bill, over the course of their lives. It is clear that they have a special and very unique bond – something that works for them and though it’s not perfect, is what the other needs. The way they essentially grew up together, as the primary and often solitary touch point for each other, was deeply touching. Sort of related, ish, I want to note how the mental health aspects of this book (the mental illness issues that Jahren deals with) are a bit more intense than I was expecting, based on the inside cover blurb. Please be careful going into this one if you would have trouble reading about depression and manic episodes, as well as mental health struggles during pregnancy.
This memoir felt a bit jumpy overall, with the personal life and plant science and academic commentary mixed in a way that just never found it’s stride, for me. The tone felt a bit harsh/judge-y and, though sometimes it was warranted, other times it made me uncomfortable. And while I really want to fully respect everything Jahren has accomplished (and I do, I mean that doesn’t change), I also am finding that I am frustrated with the way she highlighted the unhealthy work-life balance that’s expected of scientists, that she has lived, without really critiquing how unhealthy it is….she just kinda of continues to act like it was ok that that was normal (even praising the “always in the lab” lifestyle of students she worked with later in her career). Similarly, she complained, rightfully so, a number of times about the way she was treated as a woman in science (a major and insidious issue), but I felt like there was never, even as she got more established and held more influence/power, a revisiting of the issue and attempting to do something about it or make it better for future female scientists. I get that not everyone is/wants to be an advocate in that way (and maybe she has done stuff and just didn’t want to address it here), but it still felt a little incomplete, even disingenuous, to bring it up and complain about it but (seem) not to do anything about it.
So yea, there were some parts of this that were good, some that held promise and didn’t deliver, and some that just vibed wrong with me. But if it sounds interesting to you, I’d say to go ahead and experience it and see for yourself.
Here are a few passages that stood out to me as I read:
“…I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing that it’s more than people want to see.”
“I wanted to be studying plant growth, but science for war will always pay better than science for knowledge.”
“A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge.”
“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”
“It takes a long time to turn into what you’re supposed to be.”
“…pretending that things are true is often more fun than knowing that they are false.”