My Review of Lab Girl
By: Beatrice Ballarin
By now you must have heard of Lab Girl. To mention a few, it’s won the National Bestseller, been nominated for The New York Times Notable Book, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, was named one of the best books of the year for The Washington post as well as TIME Magazine and the list goes on. I read it as soon as it was published a year ago. I was fascinated by the title: I am a girl, I work in a lab—it’s me, I had to read it. Lab Girl has its own character. It’s the equivalent for the field of botany as the famous Oliver Sacks’s essay is for neurology: a vocation to science. But what is it about Lab Girl that makes it so special?
Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a combination of scientific memoir and an ode to the discipline of paleobiology. It’s not just a simple biography, where the author traces back the origins of her love for science; the book is puzzled out through stories about the secret life of a plant, from a plant’s perspective. In Lab Girl, short essays about plant’s resilience and ingenuity interleaves personal anecdotes from Dr. Jahren’s scientific career. She explains the life cycle of trees and flowers and seeds discovering similarities between human life and a plant’s—the tenacity, creativity, flexibility and ability to adapt. Lab Girl discusses what it means to be a scientist, including both the joys of successful research and the craziness of long days full of experiments. Being a Scientist is not just a profession, it becomes a passion and an identity, where the concept of work-life balance often gets lost.
Growing up in a Scandinavian family in freezing and rural Minnesota, Dr. Jahren describes her past through the sound of plants. Spending most of her youth in her father’s physics laboratory, she was introduced to the rituals of science early on, where she learned to embrace procedures and attention to details. Her stories continue through her college and graduate school experiences, where she pursued a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and even later when she obtained her first teaching job and opened her first lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She openly talks about the difficulties and stress of attaining grants to support her research, as well as how she was affected by mania-depression. Besides conveying both her devotion to her job and obsession with it, as a true workaholic, Lab Girl communicates the electric excitement that only a scientist can experience when discovering something new—something that nobody knew before. It captures the process of all the tedious work of gathering data, repeating experiments, the days and weeks of waiting and watching, the all-nighters protocols, as well as the hope and serendipity involved.
The issue of funding in academia set the tone of the book. At times finding money in science is harder than the actual science. Especially when she opens her independent laboratory—her ultimate safe place where she can do what she loves with the people that she has chosen—yet her biggest concern is money. “Ask a science professor what she worries about,” Jahren invites her reader; it is not the fear of failure to reproduce past findings, nor the fear of negative data. According to Dr. Jahren, what keeps a professor up at night is money.
So why did I become discontent with Lab Girl at this point? Increasingly, I wished Dr. Jahren to be stronger than she was, to fight more for what she had, and to get less discouraged by the challenges she faced. Simply put, I wanted to see a stronger and more confident figure. Although I appreciate how openly she talks about her mental disorder, describing it as a “great cosmic fire” that overtakes her during manic episodes and the uncertainties it causes when she has to navigate pregnancy without her usual medications. To me she fears too often about her work-life balance. Personally, I believe that if science is your true passion, it is hard to stay away from it. She makes a point to show that being a scientist is not an easy career choice—but is there any? She comes across as both a perfectionist and a workaholic. Even when she becomes an assistant professor she is on edge, always stressed, always sleepless and aware of failure. I wanted to shake her! Such a narrative doesn’t do any good for her or for the picture she creates of academia. This idea that you need to be pushed to the edge of reason to succeed is frightening. This “make it or break it” attitude is dangerous and false, especially because it leads to talented scientists turning away who fear they won’t be able to survive in such a competitive and harsh environment. Someone might even ask why would oneself go through so much pain? This is not how academia is, or at least it is not how academia should be. This was not the Lab Girl I wanted to read about.
Lab Girl speaks to me as I am thriving to become a scientist myself. Who knew that the plants could be so interesting?! Hopefully the next Lab Girl that will come along will have an easier time in becoming a scientist.