Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
June 5, 2017 People & Politics

A Life in Science

The highs and lows of lab life.


Hope Jahren. Lab Girl. Knopf, 2016. 304 pp. $27.

“If I told people I was studying ‘what it’s like to be a plant,’ some would dismiss me as a joke, but perhaps others might sign on just for the adventure.” Reading paleobotanist Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, is signing on for that adventure.

In a compellingly earthy narrative, which careens from her undergraduate days through three academic positions and fieldwork across two continents, Jahren invites us to climb inside seeds—imagining what it takes to sprout and grow into a successful tree, while at the same time letting us experience what it is like to be a young researcher maturing into a successful scientist. Jahren exposes what comes before scientific discoveries, the nonlinear process of figuring out the right questions to ask, not just the process of uncovering the answers to them. Like many scientists, Jahren is as excited by the development of new questions as she is by the eventual answers. She takes us “traveling through disaster” to tell the stories that can’t be told within the unbending confines of journal articles, including those of her own struggles with bipolar disorder.

On the surface Lab Girl is a gritty, profanity-laced exposition of what it takes to set up and sustain a lab devoted to “curiosity-driven science.” Jahren’s anxious descriptions of living from grant season to grant season, trying to juggle graduate-student support and pay her lab manager enough so he doesn’t have to live in his van, would resonate with many research scientists. “Being paid to wonder seems like a heavy responsibility at times,” she notes. Her strategies for stretching a research budget range from thrifty—shopping for supplies for field expeditions at the Salvation Army store and driving all night to extricate an unwieldy and ancient mass spectrometer from a colleague’s lab in Cincinnati—to harrowing—a last-minute road trip from Georgia to California to attend a conference, during which the van overturns on an icy road and strands Jahren and her students in a sketchy motel in Wyoming. She saves on airfare, but the van is totaled, and the Georgia Tech administrators are furious.

Jahren’s narrative buzzes with tension. There are tantalizing clues and trips down curious side streets, along with a liberal spattering of setbacks and explosions. Field research can be grindingly difficult, demanding of both physical and psychological resources. It is tougher yet when bouts of chronic illness dog your steps, a challenge that Jahren faces again and again through her career. While she can never vanquish her illness, she manages to flourish despite it, with one particular relationship providing the grounding she needs.

Her mysterious team member Bill, who Jahren meets on a class field trip, will guide her through the storms of her early career and ongoing illness. He will see her through tenure, her marriage to mathematician Clint Conrad, motherhood, and the setting up of labs at three different institutions. Though Bill and Jahren’s personal and professional relationships become clearer as the book progresses, much about Bill remains unresolved, just as he himself never finds out what happened to his hand, part of it lost in an accident he knows nothing about. They will dig into Arctic mud, binge on junk food, and hold the lab together, supporting each other through a series of scientific and personal difficulties.

At the end of her doctoral work, we get a glimpse of the depth of Jahren’s anxiety when Bill catches her gnawing her fingers until they bleed, “teething on [her] bones, sucking desperately for comfort.” Early in her career while on a field trip, she takes her Georgia Tech students on a 16-hour detour to see a roadside attraction in Florida. Showers become a biweekly occurrence, and dinner a canned protein drink from a stash in her office. Bill keeps her grounded when she can’t sleep through the night, answers her phone calls, and talks to her until dawn. But we don’t see how all-encompassing her mental illness has become until she describes “how the world spins when mania is as strong and as ever-present as gravity.” Jahren’s account of her mania evokes a wild wind whipping through a forest canopy. Leaves fly, branches break off, trunks flex, and the trees bend and bow. But most do not topple, and the debris is eventually buried, much as Jahren buries the recordings of her anguished crying jags under the magnolia tree in her yard.

To read the first half of the book, you wouldn’t suspect that Jahren has gone on to an eminent career at the intersection of analytical chemistry, paleontology, and botany. (The book’s epilogue provides more context and a more balanced view of her work.) She castigates herself after a vacuum line explodes in the lab, momentarily deafening her: “Scientists don’t do things like this. Fuck-ups do things like this.” While Jahren is every bit a scientist, by overemphasizing her disasters and leaving her scientific colleagues far offstage in the front section of her memoir, she gives us a visceral experience of impostor syndrome, where the external signals of success—positions at top-ranked universities, three Fulbright awards—are swamped by a tumultuous mix of internal uncertainty and subtle clues of outsiderness.

Through it all her work continues to progress. Fieldwork in Alaska reveals the unexpected resilience of the primeval forests there, able to accommodate wild swings in climate; the trip also reveals Jahren’s resilience. Jahren comes across as neither wanting nor needing our sympathy, nor can she be forced into the role of a heroic warrior, defeating her chronic illness once and for all. You don’t need to live like this, a doctor tells her. People have this and they manage. There are drugs and therapies, and in Jahren’s case there are also her determined husband and Bill. With all this support in place, Jahren manages, through the difficult months of her pregnancy, through moving her lab to Hawaii: “Tear apart everything aboveground—everything—and most plants can still grow rebelliously back from just one intact root. More than once. More than twice.” When the mania tears through, Bill keeps Jahren’s roots safe, and she grows again after each savage episode.

Passages discussing the life of plants serve to ease the tensions that build up around the misadventures and mania. They have an extraordinary clarity, clear pools between the muddy realities of fieldwork, and also offer a subtly different perspective on the life of scientists. Her description of a tree’s water budget gives us a deeper understanding of the difficulty in extracting grants from federal funding agencies. For a tree, or a research lab, to succeed over the long haul, it must extract what it needs to survive each and every year. Maple trees, such as those that frame the steps to my office, need a minimum of 8,000 gallons of water each year to extract the nutrients needed to survive. For a lab, it’s money. Thousands of words are written each year to extract the minimum funding needed to keep Jahren’s lab alive.

Jahren has a way of explaining plant biology that lays open the details without tangling up the reader. She manages to relay a working sense of topics ranging from powder X-ray diffraction and mass spectrometry to isotopic analysis and plant metabolism without veering into lecture mode and, remarkably, without entirely shying away from technical terms. Wisps of humor emerge from unlikely places. Her description of a seed on its way to becoming a tree—“folded within the embryo are the cotyledons: two tiny ready-made leaflets, inflatable for temporary use”—created a vision of a line of tiny green shoots, holding onto their inflatable life vests as they head out the emergency exit.

While Jahren frequently writes about issues related to women in science, particularly sexual harassment, overall these concerns take a backseat to the primary narrative threads of how science and scientists flourish within academia and how her mental illness threatens her ability to blossom. Still, many women (and men) working in STEM fields would recognize the problematic characters she encounters, from the creepily confrontational postdoc who literally guards access to critical instrumentation to the department chair who banishes Jahren from her lab when she is pregnant.

Jahren’s domestic life is curiously peripheral in the book. Her mathematician husband, Clint, is a strong but minor character, and she devotes scant attention to how she juggles being a parent and part of a two-career household (three, if you count the devoted Bill as part of the household, which at times he has been). The material on her life outside the lab sometimes feels forced to me, as if wryly acknowledging that women in science are routinely expected to address their work-life balance.

Though it is tempting to read Lab Girl as the memoir of a woman in science coping with overt and covert misogyny, I think the real story is a haunting and ultimately positive account of working in academic science while trying to cope with chronic mental illness. As Jahren tells us early on, “In the laboratory, we simply scratch the hard coat and add a little water and it’s enough to make almost any seed grow. . . . Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.” At its core, this is Jahren’s story of how the right conditions developed, at the right time, with the right people, to allow her to stretch into what she should be: an extraordinarily successful scientist.

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