Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 13, 2016

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

When I opened Lab Girl, I expected to learn a thing or two about a woman who devoted herself to science, but was drawn in still more by the author’s tenderness and humor. Hope Jahren is extraordinary: she switched from an English major to science after her first year in college, and right after grad school began a career in geochemistry and geobiology that included setting up three laboratories and lots of inspired teaching. But some of what touched me were the lucid depictions of ordinary loneliness, setbacks, and small triumphs that many people might recognize. A friendship that’s both one of a kind and familiar is at the core of her life and the book. The course of a life and career are set within a lovely arbor of information about trees and plants, a frame of small chapters that give us a glimpse into her research and the green world.

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Hope Jahren begins the memoir with a depiction of her childhood that was marked not only by the long winters of Minnesota, but a family whose conversations are very limited. The chill is shown in contrast to feeling at home in the laboratory where her father teaches physics at a community college. Sometimes sitting under tables, sometimes arranging drawers, she was “transformed from a girl into a scientist.”

We learn that though in 1950 her mother had won honorable mention in a prestigious nationwide science search, she couldn’t babysit enough hours to pay her tuition as a chemistry major at the University of Minnesota, so returned to her hometown where she married, then gave birth to and raised four children. Hope mentions that growing up in the 1960’s she never heard of, met, or saw, even on television, another living woman scientist.

She writes: “I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. …I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. …I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. … Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.”

Still, she finds it hard to not be seen for who she is – which seems one motivation for writing this book showing some hardships she confronts – raising money for her work is a big one – and also the ways her persistence brings rewards. I recognized some themes of the scientists who lived more than a century ago that I wrote about in Finding Wonders: the importance of a father passing along knowledge, the sense of isolation – which Hope Jahren seems to suggest may be part of any creative work – and the joy. She makes us care as she does about her work exploring the complicated lives of plants. And agree that “Being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”




  1. Thanks for introducing me to Lab Girl. She is certainly after your own heart.

    • Thanks! I have been talking about this book to whoever gives me an opening!

  2. These are wonderful thoughts on Lab Girl. I just picked this up on Tuesday and after reading your post, I am even more excited to read it!

    • Oh good — it’s a book I’ll want to read again, maybe focusing more the second time through on the parts about her research. Have fun!

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