DWN Book Club: ‘Lab Girl’ Sheds Light on Life as a Scientist

By Kris Gallagher

labgirlLab 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.

DWN Book Club: Parallel Lives Explored in ‘A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea’

By Kris Gallagher

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A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, by Dina Nayeri, is both a mystery and the story of the evolution of Saba Hafez in 1980s Iran. As a young girl, Saba tries to make sense of the disappearance of her mother and her twin sister, Mahtab. She crafts elaborate tales of Mahtab growing up in America—tales that both parallel and contrast with Saba’s own experiences.

While Saba is the main character of the book, the women who discussed the book in DWN’s Loop campus book club meeting noted that we also heard first-person voices of older women in the village. Some of them are upholding tradition and some of them are pushing for change. All are voices of reality compared to Saba’s dream world. “It’s like sitting in on the village gossip,” said DWN member and book club meeting facilitator Lauren Kriz, who works in Enrollment Management and Marketing.

Lauren noted that the author is herself an Iranian immigrant to the United States. “The author really is Mahtab, writing about what her relatives have experienced in Iran,” she said. Both Teaspoon and Americana, a previous DWN book club selection, explore the “immigrant worries” that people must overcome when they leave their native lands and move to the fabled America.

Saba and her father are Christians living in a Muslim community during increasingly strict enforcement of Islamic codes. One DWN member talked about how the Hafez family had to hide their Christianity and, at times, pretend to be Muslim, which echoed her own experiences living in Saudia Arabia for several years as a child.

“I felt like I lived in a bubble. What you do outside is such a tiny portion of who you are,” she shared. “You have to do what you have to do to survive. You need to protect yourself until you reach the next building.”

The women all discussed how easy is seems to bruise the ego of men in Iran and the dramatic force with which men respond. Even Saba’s father, who loves her dearly, is unable to protect her. Saba depends on several women for advice and protection, but those relationships have their own perils.

In particular, Dr. Zora, a friend of Saba’s mother, becomes both surrogate mother and the bearer of harsh truths, said Heather Smith, an adjunct professor of geography. Saba—and her mirror image Mahtab—become committed to “document the horrors of oppression.” At the end of the book, the mystery of the disappearance of Saba’s mother and sister is resolved—or is it another Iranian “pretty lie?”

Recommendations for future reading:

New York Times Documentary: “Ladies First,” Saudi Arabia’s first Female Candidates

Book: City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran by Ramita Navai

Kris Gallagher is a marketing and communications team member for the DePaul Women’s Network, and an associate editor in the Office of Advancement at DePaul University.