As an ex-scientist who has at times dipped into the scientist-writer blogosphere (yes, there is such a thing), I had heard of the name Hope Jahren. I think I read one or two of her entertaining, funnier blog posts. I read a powerful op-ed piece she wrote in the New York Times about the sexism many women face in science. But none of this prepared me for her memoir, Lab Girl.
I did not expect the lyricism with which Jahren writes of her childhood in Minnesota: the winter nights that she accompanied her father to his physics lab at a community college, which seemed a wonderland to the little girl. The tangible coldness she evokes when she writes of walking back home with her father afterward, through the Minnesota snow. I did not expect the lyrical evocation of a different type of coldness: the emotional distances within her reserved Scandinavian family.
But just as I was settling in for a literary memoir of the quietly lyrical mode, the story changed.
Dr. Jahren is a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Lab Girl is a story about science. It’s about the passion of work, a dedication to a calling. Academic scientists of all disciplines, I would expect, will nod and wince at her ruthlessly honest descriptions of all-nighters in the lab, the pressures of obtaining grant funding, the tedium and frustrations of experiments as well as the joys. Interspersed with the autobiographical narrative are short, beautifully written chapters about the life of plants. Jahren turns photosynthesis into poetry. Willows are “the Rapunzels” of the trees, with their long, drooping branches. These lessons on botany also double as commentary on the larger narrative. Jahren writes “A seed knows how to wait,” and then tells us of how a lotus seed was found which waited dormant for two thousand years before bursting forth into growth when conditions were right. She writes of a horsetail plant, Equistetum ferrissii, which breaks off into pieces to establish itself elsewhere, thus spreading itself throughout America. The horsetail chapter immediately precedes a chapter in which she details her move from Berkeley, California to Atlanta to establish a new lab. Subtle? No, but the metaphor is beautifully effective.
Lab Girl is a number of things: scientific bildungsroman, lyrical science writing, evocations of emotional growth and pain. But it’s also a series of rollicking, astonishingly funny, gasp-inducing hijinks. Jahren’s partner in these hijinks is Bill, her loyal lab manager who sticks with her through. . . everything. When she doesn’t have the funding to pay him a decent wage, he doesn’t quit to look for a new job (he has a bachelor’s degree in soil chemistry from Berkeley, so that would seem an option). Instead, he moves into the lab to sleep and continues working outrageous hours. Hope Jahren and Bill meet during a field course where she’s a graduate instructor and he an undergrad. From that moment, they become best friends, soul mates, partners in crime. Together, they establish labs at three different universities. They are both brilliant, dedicated, and exceedingly quirky (wait till you get to the chapter where Bill cuts off his long hair, or when they lead their students on an epic road trip from Atlanta to San Francisco). Jahren acknowledges that people don’t know what to make of their bond. She’s happily married to another man, and has a son with him. But she and Bill “. . . eat almost every meal together, our finances are mixed, and we tell each other everything. We travel together, work together, finish each other’s sentences, and have risked our lives for each other. . . people that I meet still seem to want a label for what is between us. . . I do us because us is what I know how to do.”
And so, this strange, brave memoir of science and passion, of growing up and finding one’s way, finds its own center in the friendship between Jahren and Bill. The passage in which Jahren escapes her first academic position for a better one, and describes what Bill’s loyalty meant to her during this time, is perhaps the most moving one in the book. Jahren and Bill are both troubled, emotionally wounded souls, and yet the source of those wounds are only delicately hinted at. A different memorist would have dived deep into familial dynamics and estrangements. Jahren circles around it. Her difficult relationship with her mother is an aching hole in the narrative--approached, but not closely. Jahren beautifully describes what it’s like to solve mysteries at the interface of geology and botany, but perhaps the most haunting aspect of this memoir is how it delicately evokes the unanswerable mysteries of the human heart.