Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren is a botanist and geobiologist, who writes that she always knew she wanted her own lab. She grew up in Minnesota where her father was a science teacher at a community college and he had a laboratory in which she would spend much of her time. The lab was the place she always felt at home, and throughout the book, the lab continues to be a place where she finds comfort.

The author describes her early years as she struggles to start her career, which involved round-the-clock work and minimal pay. She provides a window into the life of a scientist as she sets up research labs, teaches at universities, and strives to succeed amid the continual worry of finding grants to keep the research funded. She also describes the joy of working in a field she loves, and discovering something no one had known before.

Parts of the book talk about her field work, studying the water status of mosses in Ireland, and the signs of climate variation through plants in northern Alaska. There are some humorous accounts of field trips with student researchers. One particularly harrowing tale tells of driving through a blizzard with her lab partner, Bill, and some students on the way to a conference where she was a speaker.

Ms. Jahren is also very open about some personal challenges. She writes frankly about dealing with manic depression and describes the symptoms and repercussions of this illness in a clear and heartfelt way. The chapter in which she must stop taking some medications during her pregnancy is particularly honest and moving.

Chapters about the author’s life alternate with chapters about the science of plants, and often relate to each other.  Botanical topics she writes about include roots, seeds, vines, how trees survive winter, how cactus live in deserts and, amazingly, how trees may actually communicate with one another and have a type of “memory.” It gives an appreciation for the trees and plants around us.

One aspect of this memoir that truly stood out, and was a major focus of the book, was the author’s relationship with her friend and lab partner, Bill. Bill is obviously a genius but is also a bit eccentric and seems to be alone in the world. They meet early in her career, and quickly realize they are soul mates in every sense. Their friendship is remarkable and wonderful, and sustains them through challenging times. He is with her every step of the way. Like Holmes and Watson, they are a team with a true rapport and devotion to each other.

Do you enjoy reading memoirs that are beautifully written, fascinating and poignant? A memoir where you will learn something about science as well? If so, Lab Girl is just the book.

You can view a great interview with Hope Jahren on PBS Newshour here:


Lab Girl, by Jahren, Hope.
Call # 570.92 Jah Browsing Collection-Level 3