The ferocious curiosity that drives scientists to new discoveries is similar to the keen observation of compelling writers. Hope Jahren’s new book is an exemplar of novel science and sharp writing. With three Fulbrights, an impressive, lengthy roll of National Science Foundation Grants, and her own lab at a top-tier research university, she is among the academic elite. Recently, she has added New York Times bestseller list to her accolades as well.
Lab Girl details the threads of both her personal and academic lives. It isn’t an inspirational narrative about how to succeed as a woman in science, though it touches on the forces that shape the experiences of female scientists. Rather, it 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.
In the course of her studies and research, her story touches on the wider systems governing the academy. Scientists sometimes succeed in spite of the systems rather than because of them. As Jahren embarks on her journey in the field of science, she takes a draining job meticulously measuring cocktails of drugs for hospital patients. Initially, a starry-eyed Jahren sees the bags of pharmaceuticals as important aids in the hospital system. But by the end of her tenure in the lab, this initial enthusiasm has given way to a darker view of the pharmaceutical industry that designs drugs with an eye for profit rather than human flourishing. Jahren's passion for botany persists in spite of the disillusionment.
Later in her career, Jahren speaks candidly about the limitations of funding for science that promotes general knowledge rather than industrial or governmental agendas. Jahren funds her first lab with limited financial resources—her lab partner Bill takes up residence in a van, and the two share a steady supply of defrosted fast food burgers purchased during a bulk sale. Anyone who has ever pursued a dream in spite of an unstable financial situation finds a common spirit in Jahren's book.
One of the remarkable things about Jahren’s journey is that it 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. For academics who may struggle to maintain their original passion in spite of conflicting societal expectations, Jahren’s focus is one of the most remarkable aspects of her memoir. It's inspiring to read about a woman who has such resolve.
Much of what Jahren discusses is relatable for all of us, whether scientist or stay-at-home moms. We've all experienced the spark of curiosity that drives our vocations and struggled against the pressures and disillusionments that encroach on dreams. Jahren makes tremendous sacrifices to create a new home in her lab, just as we all fight to cultivate creative spaces in our homes and offices. Being able to recognize and preserve those moments of vocational purpose bolster us through the murky days of compiled obstacles.
What she shares isn't uniformly positive, though. She is honest about the real costs that come with pursuing a high-level academic career. In an interview with The Guardian, she mentions that the greatest cost of pursuing her dream was leaving her hometown. When her parents cut down her favorite tree in her yard, you can hear the ache in her voice at being thousands of miles away in Hawaii.
Reading between the lines, you have to know that there were dozens of other times that hearing family news from miles away probably caused her some doubt from time to time. But sacrifice can also pay off; sometimes following your passion requires the willingness to pull your roots up and move across the country, or even across the planet.
The research process is often a series of long days, weeks, and months sporadically punctuated with shining moments of clarity. Jahren is candid about the days in the laboratory that aren't inspiring—the lab samples that get thrown out, the lab tools that explode, the careful protocols that go awry. But these moments are interrupted by hilarious cooking adventures on camping escapades, spontaneous purchase of a loyal puppy on a roadside, and, occasionally, poetic moments of late night discovery.
But Jahren's lab feels sort of like a metaphor for life. We go through each day, adhering to routines and checking things off our to-do lists, but sometimes something wonderful happens. We see an old friend, or encounter an unexpected event. Whatever it may be, like Jahren's pursuits, life is a steady stream punctuated by small but powerful moments that, taken in tandem, compose a captivating portrait of a vocation. The quotidian dedication of schedules and duties sometimes gives ways to those glorious moments of deep understanding.
Lab Girl is a compelling read for anyone interested in an up-close account of a passionate woman. For women in academia, in particular, Jahren’s blog also contains honest, witty advice on navigating the tenure process, overcoming imposter syndrome, and relentlessly pursuing the work that inspires you. Women in science, and other fields where glass ceilings persist, succeed because they care more about their subject than external criticism, pressures, or naysayers. It’s this pure, tenacious pursuit of excellence that permeates Jahren’s career—and her book.