Lab Girl: a Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren #20BooksOfSummer21 no. 1

Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a memoir full of engrossing details about the natural world, particularly trees. But it is more than that, as the subtitle suggests. Hope Jahren is a successful scientist who has had to fight her personal demons and various setbacks, all with someone at her side who has supported her from the very start. With some beautiful descriptions and fascinating details, this will appeal to anyone who likes facts, but has the personal touch that gives us an insight into what it is like to actually work in science.

20 Books of Summer 2021 #1

Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a memoir full of engrossing details about the natural world, particularly trees. But it is more than that, as the subtitle suggests. Hope Jahren is a successful scientist who has had to fight her personal demons and various setbacks, all with someone at her side who has supported her from the very start. With some beautiful descriptions and fascinating details, this will appeal to anyone who likes facts, but has the personal touch that gives us an insight into what it is like to actually work in science.

“A leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace.”

A good friend recommended this to me at a book club in about 2017 and the very first time I was back in England, I bought a copy. It was the first of the spate of nature books that friends have recommended in the past few years. Somehow it always takes me a while to start reading non-fiction, but it’s always rewarding when I do. This was one that pulled me in from the start. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the factual chapters, but I found some of Hope Jahren’s conclusions on women in science irritated me, but that’s just me.

The chapters alternate between those telling Jahren’s personal and professional story and those talking about plants, mostly trees. I found many of the tree-based tales obvious because I’m a gardener who observes nature and plants and I enjoy nature documentaries. Of course, her explanations are more scientific than anything most plantsmen could tell you, but the fact that plants in shadier places have larger leaves is something I had already worked out for myself.

Fascinating facts

I thoroughly enjoyed the factual information in the book, though some of her facts had me peering at the world around me and wondering if Hope Jahren was correct. For instance, she tells us that the leaves on trees get progressively smaller, the higher you go. To be honest, I can’t see it myself, looking at my local trees, but I shall have to observe more closely. In smaller plants, it usually works out that way, too, but I had always assumed it was because upper leaves have had less time to grow and, in any case, plants would fall over if they were top-heavy with bigger leaves at the top; it’s what happens if you don’t deadhead your summer flowers and the seed heads pull the plant over. Deadhead them and they stand up straight again.  Nevertheless, she extended my knowledge by pointing out that the leaves lower down a tree are also larger to allow them to photosynthesise in the shade of the higher branches. Jahren has done the scientific legwork to prove it.

Another interesting snippet of information was her comment about the numerical superabundance of seeds produced by a tree. On my very first walk after reading that, I took a photo that perfectly illustrated it. It’s even more obvious in the spring when you see the carpet of shed flowers surrounding flowering cherries and rhododendrons. The Japanese even have a word for it, ochitsubaki, though it is applied specifically to camellia blossoms. 

So many seeds

Platonic love

This isn’t just a book about nature, though. It’s also about self-doubt, overcoming depression with the help of your friends and platonic love. Jahren and her research assistant Bill are locked in a wonderfully supportive, slightly anarchic platonic relationship. They have been going on adventures together for years, taking students to inhospitable places and sharing the sort of escapades and in-jokes that friends usually develop while they are students. I really enjoyed the way they are able to tune in to each other and pull each other out of the mire of despond.

Joy and depression

A spruce tree in her parents’ garden taught her that “being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. […] carefully writing everything down is the only real defence we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more.”

When Jahren does her first piece of novel research on the seed of the hackberry tree, it seems rather odd that she feels so disconsolate. She seems rather melodramatic, saying “as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realisation that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.” It seems so sad that she  felt like that when she was still so young, working toward her Ph.D, with plenty of time to find a partner, have children or anything else she wanted. And her mother would undoubtedly have loved a call. “I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother—or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.” (p.91)

What we can learn from trees

“The trees were always doing something: when I kept this fact placed firmly in front of me, I got closer to making sense of the problem.”

“A new mind-set became imperative: perhaps I could learn to see the world as plants do, put myself in their place, and puzzle out how they work. […] I tried to visualise a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it.”

“We don’t resent the audacity of the weed, as every seed is audacious, we resent its fantastic success. Humans are actively creating a world where only weeds can live and then feigning shock and outrage upon finding so many.”

Misogeny or unrealistic expectations?

My only real problem with this book is the repetition of how the men / the establishment / male scientists treat her. She gives the example of feeling ignored at a scientific conference, which surely was not surprising as she was still a very junior researcher at the time and hadn’t yet had the time to build up a network and get to know people. Another of her anecdotes is about her boss deciding that she was not allowed in the building during medical leave because “they don’t know how to deal with a pregnant woman, and you’re the only one who has ever set foot in this building.” This just didn’t ring true in the 21st century, especially as she’s just mentioned the secretaries, who presumably also become pregnant on occasion. And indeed, on the following page she mentions that, in hindsight, it was just a liability issue because she was officially on sick leave (not maternity leave). Nevertheless, the difficulty of being a woman in science is a recurring theme.

Like Bill who thinks that nobody likes him, Hope seems to have her own fully grown persecution complex. It’s not ‘imposter syndrome’ because she is perfectly clear about her expertise and the value of her work, but she is also convinced that she and her work are undervalued because she is a woman. Perhaps paleobotanical science attracts a specific type of man with dinosaur sensibilities, but in the academic areas I have had contact with – electronics, horticulture and medicine – women seem to have perfectly satisfying careers and can stand their ground against any man in the field.

The defensive attitude that Hope Jahren displays in her book reminds me of that Shakespeare quote about the lady protesting too much; it’s something she has convinced herself is true to explain the difficulties that everyone in her situation has of obtaining grants and gaining the respect of more senior colleagues, especially when working in novel fields of research or using unusual methodology. It would be a shame if reading this inspirational book should make young women shy away from working in science and research. After all, she does seem to have an exaggerated vision of what is reasonable. How many other people do you know who think that they should set up her own lab immediately after obtaining their doctorate? Most other people go to work in somebody else’s lab, surely? Unless you come up with some incredibly commercial product during research.

In line with her chorus of ‘I am wise, but it’s wisdom born of pain … I am woman’ (to quote Helen Reddy), Hope Jahren tells us the story of giving birth in unnecessary detail. I wonder why this wasn’t edited to remove the gory details but to still include the story about how nursing and medical staff talked about her while giving birth because I think that part was relevant.

After all her negative stories, it’s not surprising to discover that Hope Jahren has suffered from mental illness, but her hope when she finally agrees to visit a doctor and is prescribed medication, makes you wonder why there is such a reluctance to medicate. “This doctor is so smart and so sure and has seen this so many times that you begin to dare to hope that maybe it’s not too late to finally grow into what you were supposed to be.” I hope it has worked.

P.S.

Speaking of terminology, Hope Jahren is excellent in explaining scientific concepts in words of one syllable. The only words I had to look up were all American slang:

  • gomer (either an idiot – military slang – or a difficult patient – medical slang
  • gimp (disabled)
  • hoosegow (prison)
  • ShamWow (a highly absorbent synthetic sponge/shammy leather)

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