Lab Girl is one of those books that celebrates the intelligence and wonder of plants, like The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. But that’s not all. It’s also a book that criticizes the current scientific funding model of grant applications and gatekeepers, and shows how academic research really works. And it’s also a book about weirdos: those beautiful eccentrics who find a way to survive on society’s fringes, whose outsider-perspectives offer fresh insights on old problems.
Lab Girl is a memoir of the early career of a female biologist, who happens to be a fantastic writer. For me, that writing craft first became apparent when Jahren layered memories of an early job she had in a pharmacy with thoughts on the David Copperfield English assignment she was writing at the time.
“That night in the hospital I walked in and out of the hospice ward ten or twenty times, and my eyes and hands moved through the necessary tasks. Well into the night and deeper in my brain, it came to me that as hospital workers, we were being paid to trail along behind Death as he escorted frail, wasted bodies over difficult miles, dragging their loved ones along with him. My job was to meet the travelling party at its designated way stations and faithfully provide fresh supplies for the journey.”
While doing her undergrad Jahren worked nights as a lab tech in a hospital pharmacy, filling prescriptions and running them to patients. She describes the nuts and bolts of this job with passion, and problem-solves like physicist Richard Feynman in his brilliant, quirky autobiographies. But she doesn’t stop there. She moves beyond the practicalities of the job, revealing the thoughts she had at the time about an English assignment due in the morning, and also the present-day poetic insights she discovered in looking back. The girl knows her way around a metaphor.
Jahren alternates short chapters about plant biology with her own growth as a scientist, keeping a loose connection between the two. Thoughts about a seed’s gamble when it opens up and takes root – expending its one dose of nutrients, its one shot at life, hoping it’s chosen a good location because it won’t be able to move later – gently set readers up for a chapter where Jurgen sets up her first lab using every last dime of her grant money.
She’s not aggressive or repetitive, but neither does she pull punches when talking about how underfunded science is in the United States, or how male-dominated. She calls it like she sees it, and that honesty alone is noteworthy. We feel the stress of her early years to perform well and secure funding for research and to pay her team. And we feel the frustration of performing in a room full of men.
Best of all we see meet the people who love her, who hold on through the storm, who donate old lab equipment, who sit beside her on the curb when life blows up in her face. We feel the hope that we’ll find our “people” and our purpose, as Jahren found hers.