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Lab Girl Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 5, 2016
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An Amazon Best Book of April 2016: I was doubtful that I would like this book. While I appreciate a beautiful flower as much as the next city-girl, the thought of reading a whole book about a geobiologist-- a scientist who spends her life studying plants, trees, soils as well as flowers--made me want to run to the nearest dysfunctional family memoir about crazy parents and their wounded children. But Hope Jahren won me over very quickly. Somehow she knows me: “the average person [who] cannot imagine himself staring at dirt for longer than the twenty seconds needed to pick up whatever object he just dropped.” And she doesn’t judge. Instead, she just tells her story, which, it turns out has a lot to do with plants and science, of course--her father was a scientist, she basically grew up in a lab, and taking long walks through nature was the way she communed with her reticent Scandinavian American parents--but also has a lot to do with other things. Like life, for instance, and friendship and passion and love, for ideas, for work and for all living beings, including--shocker!--people. Surely many readers will feel as I did that the story of her relationship with Bill, her physically and emotionally damaged lab partner, is at the heart of this wonderful story; it’s unusual, it’s inspiring and it doesn’t fit neatly into the little window box we think we’re supposed to favor. And if Jahren can surprise you about all that messy human stuff, just think how she can change your feelings about dirt. --Sara Nelson
“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
“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)
“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
“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
“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
“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
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At one point Jahren compares the intelligence of her graduate students to her dog-- and the dog wins. She refers to another quiet student on a trip as "warm-blooded cargo," because of his uselessness as a driver. What really sealed the deal for me was the road trip. 5 Days before a conference, Jahren and Bill decide they want to attend. They decide to drive cross country, taking two graduate students with them to share in the driving (not to enrich their education or anything). One day, Jahren does not heed multiple warnings and directs the graduate student driver to go straight into a snow storm. Predictably, the van flips when they hit some ice. Lessons Jahren learned: 1) When you pee into bottles make sure to cap them. 2) Wear a seat belt. The student driver, understandably shaken, asks to be dropped off at the airport so she can fly home, but Jahren and Bill yell at her and refuse, calling her a quitter. They drag her to the conference in the banged up van so that Jahren can deliver the talk that was so important that it was never mentioned again in the book. When they return, Jahren nobly claims responsibility for the busted university van (as she should-- she was in charge!). How selfless.
Jahren and Bill enjoy giving their students a repetitive, meaningless task, like labeling hundreds of bottles, and then telling them that, sorry, they won't be using their work after all. To pass their sadistic test a student must both resign his or herself to the monotony that is science and accept that the work was wasted, but also salvage something from the time spent. A memorable student saved all the bottle caps, hoping they could be "spares" in the future.
There are little stories like this woven into the book, souring the beautiful language on scientific discovery and personal passion. I was a graduate student once and this culture is pervasive and horrifying and drives good students from pursuing science. A student may have the passion, but s/he just can't contend with being treated like the scum on Jahren's shoes. I admire Jahren's scientific successes and her obvious dedication, but it is overshadowed by her perpetuation of a problematic culture.
I appreciate the way she incorporated her struggles with mental illness, women in science and university funding (which will make any tuition paying parent give a HARD look at the college they are paying to educate their child at) within the book but never came off as whiny or complaining. Simply this is "the way it is". She is also deeply personal with her own thoughts on her childhood, the self doubts we all have in our twenties and eventually parenthood.
It was an entertaining, informative and inspiring read. Sometimes we don't know if we're making the right decisions, but if we made them, they are at least ours.
My 2 sisters and 2 scientist-children will receive this book as a gift! Thank you so much to Hope Jahren for writing this and I will read anything else you decide to write!
In summary, I can't imagine anyone who is the slightest interested in STEM subjects who wouldn't enjoy reading this book. Great companion reads: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer and All That the Rain Promises and More by David Arora.