By Kris Gallagher
Lab Girl, a memoir by Hope Jahren, surprised and delighted me with its mash-up of basic plant science and the dirty, chaotic mess that is both research and life. It tells the story of a bright, reclusive and committed scientist, alternating between loneliness, the thrill of discovery and the quest to find her place in the world. It showcases the best non-romantic male-female relationship that I’ve ever read about. And, it’s left me standing under trees this spring, wondering what’s going on in there.
Attendees at the Loop discussion praised how the book alternated between bite-size bits of science and Jahren’s life. The science snippets also served as a metaphor, starting with seeds and Jahren’s childhood and following the growth of the tree and the woman until maturity. It also talks about the importance of family, both the ones we are born with and the ones we make. The accessibility and support of mothers and fathers figure prominently in the lives of the main characters.
One of the most evocative moments in the book is when Jahren discovers a previously unknown substance inside seeds (we won’t tell; you’ll have to read the book). She writes about how mind-blowing it is to be the only person on the planet to know it. None of us could imagine that happening in our lives. Her discovery made us all yearn a bit to be scientists.
Then there is the flip side. Even though we all work in academia, we were struck by how scientists live grant to grant. Highly educated, experienced scientists (like Bill, her long-time assistant) live hand to mouth, sometimes in spare broom closets, when grant money slows to a drip. They are working at nationally renowned universities, picking through abandoned equipment and celebrating the retrieval of a package of unused gloves. This is a crazy way to fund science!
The book ends with a request that readers plant at least one tree, and we all talked about our options for doing so. I think we’ll all look at spring differently this year.
Note: One participant listened to the audio book, which is narrated by Jahren, and didn’t appreciate how emotional the author becomes in some sections. This may help you decide how you want to engage with this book.
Kris Gallagher is a member of the DePaul Women’s Network marketing and communications team, and an associate editor in the Office of Advancement at DePaul University.