Book Review: Lab Girl

Lab Girl
Hope Jahren
Alfred A. Knopf Publishers
2016

“I will never stop being ravenously hungry for science, no matter how well it feeds me.” (276)

In her memoir Lab Girl, Hope Jahren tells the behind-the-scenes tales you don’t always hear about becoming a renowned scientist. Down to earth and with a penchant for the downright comical, Jahren takes readers on her journey from growing up in small town Minnesota, through a graduate degree at Berkeley, and brings us along for the ride as she establishes labs across the country in the male-dominated field of geoscience. Lab Girl effectively toes the line between the personal and the scientific, offering up botanical tidbits not only as a means of educating the non-botanists among us but also as a framework for the parallels of life on earth. Jahren’s language is elevated and witty in a way that belies expertise in academic writing, but certainly never talks down to her audience, and—best of all—she never gets preachy. While some women scientists use print media to advance their soapbox campaign for the fight towards equality, Jahren simply tells her story. Through this, readers are inoculated in the unremarkable (yet sometimes frustratingly novel) idea that some top-tier scientists are women. And if breaking one barrier in science wasn’t enough, Jahren also elucidates the mental health catastrophe that percolates under the surface of many academics. Describing in biting detail her own struggles with manic depression, Jahren shatters the perceptions that it’s okay to keep silent about the need for medical intervention and public acceptance of mental health in the academy and beyond. In all, Jahren’s journey is mesmerizing, and should be required reading for those of us in the sciences, and beyond, because only by talking across disciplinary lines can we advance the understanding of our world.  After all, “the future will be splendid and full of miracles and you can taste its coming”, so why wouldn’t you want to experience one of the brilliant minds that is working to advance it.