Lab Girl (Hardcover)
Knopf, 9781101874936, 304pp.
Publication Date: April 5, 2016
April 2016 Indie Next List
— Pete Mulvihill (W), Green Apple Books, San Francisco, CA
View the List
A New York Times 2016 Notable Book
National Best Seller
Named one of TIME magazine’s "100 Most Influential People"
An Amazon Top 20 Best Book of 2016
A Washington Post Best Memoir of 2016
A TIME and Entertainment Weekly Best Book of 2016
"A beautifully written memoir about the life of a woman in science, a brilliant friendship, and the profundity of trees. Terrific." —Barack Obama
An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world
Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s remarkable 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.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
Jahren’s probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.
About the Author
Praise For Lab Girl…
“Lab Girl made me look at trees differently. It compelled me to ponder the astonishing grace and gumption of a seed. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to a deeply inspiring woman—a scientist so passionate about her work I felt myself vividly with her on every page. This is a smart, enthralling, and winning debut.” —Cheryl Strayed
“Lab Girl surprised, delighted, and moved me. I was drawn in from the start by the clarity and beauty of Jahren’s prose, whether she was examining the inner world of a seed, the ecosystem around the trunk of a tree, or recounting her own inspiring journey. With Lab Girl, Jahren joins those talented scientists who are able to reveal to us the miracle of this world in which we live.” —Abraham Verghese
“Jahren has dedicated her life’s work to the study of trees with extraordinary single-mindedness and insight. Lab Girl is both an engaging account of her maturity as a scientist and a heartfelt paean to plants. They emerge from her memoir as much more than a bundle of biological processes, but beings with strange, secret lives, supported by astonishingly elegant machinery . . . Lucid, brilliant.” —Harriet Baker, Times Literary Supplement
“Fascinating, engaging . . . immediately engrossing and extremely readable . . . Leaves, soil and seeds light a fire in the mind and heart of Hope Jahren. In her hands, you will never feel the same way about these words again . . . The main theme of her memoir is survival: in science, in life, in love. For humans and for plants. In these pages you’ll find a renewed interest in the natural world, and notice things that have been hidden in plain sight. Jahren marvels at the perfectly clean break of a leaf stem, the first leaves of a new plant—and you will find yourself marvelling too. She writes: ‘Love and learning are similar, in that they can never be wasted.’ And neither is time spent reading this book.” —Lucie Green, The Guardian (UK)
“Magnificent, illuminating. Moving, resonant, relatable . . . On the journey she has taken since childhood, into the university world, and ultimately building three research labs that bear her name, earning multiple Fulbrights and one brand or another of genius awards, Jahren will never lose her deep affection for the wonders of the known and unknown world. A gorgeous book of life. Jahren contains multitudes. Her book is love as life. Trees as truth.” —Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune
“Breathtakingly honest, affecting . . . Geobiologist Hope Jahren was not satisfied presenting only the pieces of her story that fit within the constraints of a scientific manuscript. In [this] behind-the-scenes tour of science, we join her for misadventures and triumphs as she sets up three labs and conducts research in the Canadian Arctic, Ireland, Hawaii, and across the continental United States. The purview of a geobiologist includes everything from soil science and geology to atmospheric science and botany. Jahren is game for all of it. She connects her own experiences to the works of Charles Dickens, E. E. Cummings, and Harper Lee—often humorously—with the same ease that she describes leaf venation. This mingling of the literary and the scientific highlights their connections, as well as the humanity underlying both disciplines. Fascinating plant facts do the double work of opening avenues for deeper reflection . . . At its core, Lab Girl is a book about seeing—with the eyes, but also the hands and the heart. Jahren spends the book teaching us that if we just look closely enough, we can see the opal lattice on a hackberry seed, the depths of loyalty in our closest friends, the wonder in a single leaf, and what we ourselves are supposed to become . . . Gorgeous.” —Carolyn Beans, American Scientist
“Hope Jahren is the voice that science has been waiting for. Lab Girl is a tell-all autobiography that demystifies a research career, even as it reveals its strangeness. She writes about the plight of women in research academia, but Lab Girl is much more. From childhood origins as a loner through a 20-year career, Jahren’s voice is clear, compelling and uncompromisingly honest . . . Plant development becomes a metaphor for her own progress in the challenging landscape of academia . . . She’s the type of scientist who cheerfully spends three seasons drilling through Arctic turf; between sessions of hard graft, her lab group takes road trips to see bizarre attractions, or attempts elaborate campfire cuisine. Amid descriptions of the work, uncomfortable secrets of science are laid bare. Jahren pulls no punches on the stark realities of being a woman in science, which won’t come as a surprise to many. This is not a how-to manual, but young scientists of either gender could learn a lot simply from Jahren’s perseverance. Lab Girl is funny, full of joyous moments, and often sad. But despite all the hardship, there is clearly nowhere else that Jahren would rather be.” —Jennifer Rohn, Nature
“Remarkable . . . The ferocious curiosity that drives scientists to new discoveries is similar to the keen observation of compelling writers. Jahren’s new book is an exemplar of novel science and sharp writing. Lab Girl is the acutely personal account of the drive that propels people to the frontier of an academic discipline. The book speaks not only to aspiring botanist, but to anyone who has ever relentlessly pursued vocational excellence . . . Jahren’s journey is never sidetracked by her real passion for botany. Her eloquent rhapsodies about peerless soil samples, willow trees, and the tenacity of a cactus prompt a deeply inquisitive spirit in readers . . . A compelling read for anyone interested in an up-close account of a passionate woman. [A] pure, tenacious pursuit of excellence permeates Jahren’s career—and her book.” —Rachel Wilkerson, Verily
“Luminous . . . Peppered with literary references to Genet, Beckett, Dickens and Thoreau, Jahren’s honest prose is insightful, eloquent, and funny, and she has a gift for explaining hard science in the most bewitching way . . . The heart of the book is the story of her touching relationship with Bill, her brilliant lab partner. Lab Girl is a book about being a woman in science as much as it is a clarion call to follow your passion. In the end, it’s easy to see the book as a love note—not just to plants, to science, and to the sweetness of discovery, but also to friendship and loyalty, to journeys big and small, to belonging and becoming.” —Kathleen Yale, Orion
“Sparkling, unexpected . . . delightfully, wickedly funny . . . precise, detailed, engrossing. Any woman who opens her book with the line ‘There is nothing in the world more perfect than a slide rule’ already has my heart. Lab Girl is the story of a girl who becomes a scientist. It’s also the story of a career and the endless struggles over funding, recognition, and politics that get in the way. It’s the story of the plants and soil Hope Jahren studies. But—and this is the weirdest, coolest part about this book—it is really the story of two lab partners and their uncommon bond. Hope and Bill’s is not any ordinary friendship; she lets us into this peculiar, inscrutable, enduring association with both honesty and compassion. When two misfits meet, they tend to connect at a deep, unspoken, lizard-brain level that cannot be easily explained to anyone else. The fact that she even tried—much less succeeded so brilliantly—to put their lab-partners-for-life arrangement on paper is one of the most impressive feats in this extraordinary book . . .With Lab Girl, Jahren has taken the form of the memoir and done something remarkable with it. She swerves from observations about plant life to a report from the interior of her tortured brain to adventures on the road with Bill—and somehow, it all works . . . I love this book for its honesty, its hilarity and its brilliant sharp edges. Jahren has some serious literary chops to go along with all that science she gets up to. I can’t wait to see what comes next. Powerful and disarming.” —Amy Stewart, The Washington Post
“Jahren writes with such flair that a reviewer is tempted to just move out of the way and quote her; from the prologue on, a reader itches to call out fun facts to innocents nearby. Deft and flecked with humor, Lab Girl is also a hybrid—a scientist’s memoir of a quirky, gritty, fascinating life, punctuated by mesmerizing dispatches on botany . . . The mixing of C.P. Snow’s two cultures [the sciences and the humanities] gives the book a bright spark, like playing tennis with an intriguing, ambidextrous friend. Jahren’s improvised path as a woman scientist forms the spine of Lab Girl. Her lab partner Bill, a sort of fraternal twin, carries the weight of emotional confederacy in the book . . . Like Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir or Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Lab Girl delivers the zing of a beautiful mind in nature.” —Karen R. Long, Seattle Times
* “Sublime, entertaining . . . With good humor, plenty of science, scattered literary allusions and the occasional sarcastic zinger, Lab Girl is a memoir of a plant research scientist [that] illuminates both the science of the plant world and the ebb and flow of her personal life—her struggles to find professional success, love and family. Jahren emerges as a smart, practical, good-hearted woman who loves her work and also finds joy in her husband, young son and best friend, Bill.”—Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness (starred)
“Revelatory . . . a veritable jungle of ideas and sensations. Chapters on the life cycle of plants, Jahren’s specialty, alternate with episodes from her life as she copes with early obstacles or produces her first original experimental result . . . Lab Girl celebrates the unanticipated rewards of her idiosyncrasies. Not least of these is Jahren’s friendship with Bill, her scientific partner of over 20 years. A pronounced oddball, a seeker of knowledge, and a trader of sardonic wisecracks, Bill is Jahren’s unfailing, unfussy sidekick; [he’s] never happier than when on the job, savoring the complexities of soil layers or scavenging secondhand equipment for the laboratories the two of them have built together . . . Jahren captures the ramshackle poetry of this friendship, whose loyalty is so deep and abiding that it forges a great love story, in spite of the utter absence of erotic interest in either party. Its strength springs from the partners’ shared passion for their vocation—with all its tedium and frustration and uncertainty and wonder . . . Winning.” —Laura Miller, Slate
“As a young girl growing up in Minnesota, Jahren spent her formative years in the labs of her father, a science teacher at the local community college. But while her time in the lab with her father may have steered Jahren toward science, her mother’s quest to earn a Bachelor’s degree later in life meant that as a young girl, Jahren read the classics alongside her mother. It is this literary upbringing fueled by science that heralds Jahren’s memoir as the beginning of a career along the lines of Annie Dillard or Diane Ackerman. In Lab Girl, she constructs her own life story— her struggling years as an undergraduate, the persistent sexist attitude of the scientific community, the constant lack of funds, her growing awareness of her bipolar disorder—with the attention to detail and respect for organic growth that has earned her increased recognition and funding in the later years of her career. The strongest story running through the memoir is a love story: that between Jahren and her colleague, Bill—not her husband but work partner, travel companion, surrogate brother and best friend. Jahren considers us all scientists, operating within our own sphere of study, and she writes this book as ‘one scientist to another.’” —Meganne Febrega, Minneapolis StarTribune
“A scientific memoir that’s beautifully human. Jahren, a geochemist, botanist and geobiologist, has spent the better part of the past two decades studying the secret lives of plants. Part memoir, part biology text, part criticism of the status quo of the scientific community, Lab Girl reminds us that, in ways, we are strikingly like our blossoming brethren. Lab Girl is anything but technical. It is full of pleasing turns of phrase, references to literary figures like Genet and Dickens, and a running botany allusion that punctuates the book’s biographical story. Most of all, it’s deeply personal, following Jahren’s battle with manic depression; a harrowing pregnancy; her unending struggle to secure funding in a quickly drying financial desert; and the loving platonic relationship she shares with her protégé and lab manager, Bill. Jahren’s work has taken her around the world, from the ancient forests of Norway and Denmark to the remote and treeless Arctic, and most recently to the lush gardens of Hawaii. Throughout, she inserts short essays about the life cycles of plants—the unwavering obstinacy of the cactus, or the careful budgeting of resources of a deciduous tree—juxtaposed with the traumas and triumphs of her own academic and personal life. It is not the book a scientist usually writes; in its depth and rawness, Lab Girl steps into uncharted territory. It is a book, Jahren [says], intended to break down the wall between scientists and the rest of the world.” —Melissa Cronin, Popular Science
“A recollection of a life in botanical science; lessons in plant life; a story of Jahren’s relationship with an eccentric co-worker. The three elements combine to form one fascinating memoir.” —Entertainment Weekly, “10 Books You Have to Read in April”
“A powerful new memoir . . . Jahren is a remarkable scientist who turns out to be a remarkable writer as well. A geobiologist who can take you into the deepest secrets of plants and earth, then turn around and stun you with her own deeply human story. Think Stephen Jay Gould or Oliver Sacks. But Jahren is a woman in science, who speaks plainly to just how rugged that can be. And to the incredible machinery of life around us.” —Tom Ashbrook, On Point, National Public Radio
“Gratifying, spirited . . . a moving chronicle of an eminent research scientist’s life . . . It takes a passionate geobiologist with the soul of a poet to make us swoon in the face of computational amplitude . . . Jahren’s aim is to make the reader appreciate the fascinations of studying flora, to infect us with the same enthusiasm that has driven her ever since she was a child hanging around in her father’s lab, falling hard for the sensuous allures of the slide rule. Early on she discovers one generous mystery of scientific inquiry—in the course of making it, it makes you . . . Jahren’s literary bent renders dense material digestible and lyrical, in fables that parallel personal history. Her lab partner Bill [is] a character every bit as extraordinary as any of the wild organisms she describes . . . Jahren is determined we stop taking trees for granted: so plant one tree this year, she implores. Trees nourish life in uncountable, always beautiful, ways, and to plant one is to plant hope.” —Melissa Holbrook Pierson, The New York Times Book Review
“Engrossing . . . Vladimir Nabokov once observed that ‘a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.’ The geobiologist Hope Jahren possesses both in spades. Her new memoir is at once a thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants—a book that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology . . . By crosscutting between chapters about the life cycle of trees and flowers and other green things, and chapters about her own coming-of-age as a scientist, Jahren underscores the similarities between humans and plants—tenacity, inventiveness, an ability to adapt—but, more emphatically, the radical otherness of plants . . . [In] the laboratory of her father, who taught introductory physics and earth science at a local community college, she discovered the rituals and magic of science: She embraced its rules and procedures and the attention to detail it demanded. Science gave her what she needed: ‘a home as defined in the most literal sense, a safe place to be’ . . . She communicates the electric excitement of discovering something new—something no one ever knew or definitively proved before—and the grunt work involved in conducting studies and experiments: the days and weeks and months of watching and waiting and gathering data, the all-nighters, the repetitions, the detours, both serendipitous and unfruitful . . . Along the way, she comes to realize that her work as a scientist is also part of a larger enterprise: she is part of the continuum of scientists who have each built upon their predecessors’ work, and who will hand down their own advances to the next generation.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Warm, witty . . . Born and raised in a rural Minnesota town built around a meat-processing plant and defined mostly by its brutal winters and Scandinavian restraint, Jahren assumed that the grim endurance of her Norwegian-immigrant ancestors was her legacy. She did turn out to be tenacious, though not exactly in the way she had pictured: Long hours spent entertaining herself as a child in her physics-teacher father’s work space piqued Jahren’s interest in science, and her housewife mother’s unhappiness propelled her to pursue higher education all the way to a UC Berkeley Ph.D. Today, she’s an internationally renowned geobiologist with three Fulbrights, her own world-class laboratory, and a Wikipedia page longer and starrier than most U.S. senators’. Lab Girl is her recounting of the near half century of adventures, setbacks, and detours that brought her from there to here. But even more than that, it’s a fascinating portrait of her engagement with the natural world: she investigates everything from the secret life of cacti to the tiny miracles encoded in an acorn seed, studding her observations with memorable sentences . . . Jahren’s singular gift is her ability to convey the everyday wonder of her work: exploring the strange, beautiful universe of living things that endure and evolve and bloom all around us, if we bother to look. A-” —Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“Deeply affecting . . . a totally original work, both fierce and uplifting: a biologist’s natural history of her subjects, and herself. In Lab Girl, pioneering geobiologist Jahren limns her journey [from] insecure young scientist [to] medals and professional and personal fulfillment. Jahren recognized as an undergrad that science would be her true home—a place of safety, warmth, and light [where] she could be part of something larger than herself. A belletrist in the mold of Oliver Sacks, she is terrific at showing just how science is done. But her prose reaches another dimension when she describes her remarkable relationship with a lab guy, an undergraduate loner named Bill. The research partners dig holes, gather soil samples, battle personal demons, and keep each other grounded. Jahren’s writing is precise, as befits a scientist who also loves words. She’s an acute observer, prickly—and funny as hell.” —Elizabeth Royte, ELLE
“Attentive to subtle signs of growth and change, geobiologist Jahren turns her gaze not only outward but also inward and finds wonder even in minutiae: the flourishing of a seed, an emotional efflorescence in her own psyche. ‘Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.’” —Dawn Raffel, More “Jahren grew up in small-town Minnesota, playing in her father’s science lab and laboring in her mother’s garden. Her first book invites readers to fall in love, as she did, with science and plants. The award-winning scientist travels the world studying trees with her best friend and lab partner, and finds refuge from life’s conflicts in the lab. ‘There I transformed from a girl into a scientist, just like Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, only kind of backward,’ she writes.” —Jennifer Maloney, The Wall Street Journal, “The Hottest Spring Nonfiction Books”
“Jahren, a professor of geobiology, recounts her unfolding journey to discover ‘what it’s like to be a plant’ in this darkly humorous, emotionally raw, and exquisitely crafted memoir. Jahren, who ‘loves [her] calling to excess,’ describes the joy of working alone at night, the ‘multidimensional glory’ of a manic episode, scavenging jury-rigged equipment from a retiring colleague, or spontaneously road-tripping with students. She likens elements of her scientific career to a plant driven by need and instinct. But the most extraordinary and delightful element of her narrative is her partnership with Bill, her lab partner and caring best friend. It’s a rare portrait of a deep relationship in which mutual esteem [is] unmarred by sexual tension. For Jahren, a life in science yields the gratification of asking, knowing, and telling; for the reader, the joy is in hearing about the process as much as the results.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Award-winning scientist Jahren delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world. The author’s father was a science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from student to scientist has the narrative tension of a novel, and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way . . . Trees are of key interests to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic. The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist. Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl burns with her love of science, teaching us the way great teachers can. This is a powerful book that is as original as it is deeply felt.” —Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
“Some people are great writers, while other people live lives of adventure and importance. Almost no one does both. Hope Jahren does both. She makes me wish I’d been a scientist.” —Ann Patchett
“Deeply affecting. . . . a totally original work, both fierce and uplifting: a biologist’s natural history of her subjects, and herself. In Lab Girl, pioneering geobiologist Jahren limns her journey [from] insecure young scientist [to] medals and professional and personal fulfillment. Jahren recognized as an undergrad that science would be her true home—a place of safety, warmth, and light [where] she could be part of something larger than herself. A belletrist in the mold of Oliver Sacks, she is terrific at showing just how science is done. But her prose reaches another dimension when she describes her remarkable relationship with a lab guy, an undergraduate loner named Bill. The research partners dig holes, gather soil samples, battle personal demons, and keep each other grounded. Jahren’s writing is precise, as befits a scientist who also loves words. She’s an acute observer, prickly—and funny as hell.” —Elizabeth Royte, ELLE
“Attentive to subtle signs of growth and change, geobiologist Jahren turns her gaze not only outward but also inward and finds wonder even in minutiae: the flourishing of a seed, an emotional efflorescence in her own psyche. ‘Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.’” —Dawn Raffel, More
“Lyrical, illuminating . . . It’s not surprising that today we relegate those who speak the language of biology, chemistry or physics to a kind of rarified ghetto. ‘They’ are faceless, or if they have a face, it’s a cliché: the kooky savant or some lab-coated bespectacled fellow—never, by the way, a woman—who seems trapped in a suburb in the 1950s. But with Jahren’s engaging memoir, Lab Girl, scientists have another face. That’s important because they need the public to understand them as much as the public needs to understand what scientists do. Lab Girl traces Jahren’s career from a Minnesota childhood noodling around her father’s community-college science lab to her current position as a tenured professor. But the book isn’t a tidy catalog of accomplishments. Rather, it describes the messy failures and hard-won joys of trying to keep doing the work she was trained to do . . . Jahren’s labs [are] as places of study, refuge, combat and friendship, and they—along with her professional partner, Bill, a hilariously sketched figure—provide the context for her reminiscences; mesmerizing passages describe the choreography of lab work . . . Lab Girl is not focused on educating the reader, or on an agenda. On the contrary, it offers a lively glimpse into a scientifically inclined mind. The best moments describe observation in nature, which lead to a question, which in turn formulates a hypothesis, generates an experiment and, with luck, yields the ecstasy of discovery. If we are to take Jahren as a model, scientists are like artists, only with really specialized tools, and after the same thing, truth. What Lab Girl offers, beyond the pleasure of reading it, is the insight that science is built of small contributions, not masterstrokes like e=mc2. Scientists [walk] a march of knowledge, one stepping stone at a time. The title, Lab Girl, is a clever transposition of expectations. It doesn’t say, I am what you assume. It says, know who I am.” —Eugenia Bone, The Wall Street Journal
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. What were Jahren’s main motivations for pursuing scientific research as her career?
2. escribe Hope and Bill’s work partnership and friendship. What makes them so well suited to each other, and what’s unexpected about the dynamic of this male-female relationship?
3. How does Jahren balance the excitement and frustrations of working in a lab and researching in her story?
4. What are some of the unique challenges she faces as a woman in science, and what message does she convey to girls and women about following their dreams in this field—or any?
5. What was the most interesting fact about plants you learned while reading Lab Girl?