Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

Lab Girl

By Hope Jahren

Vintage Books, 2016

I picked this up expecting an updated version of E.O. Wilson. After, all The New York Times blurb on the front cover read, “Does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.”

Wrong.

I expected E.O. Wilson. I got Cheryl Strayed.

Once I understood that, I loved this book. Jahren (whose nascent website is titled, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, hopejahrensurecanwrite.com) does what all good contemporary memoirists must do: lays herself bare, stripping the layers away to a deep, affecting rawness. I often encounter first-time authors who want to write a memoir. After all, everyone has one good story in them, right? While anyone can write a memoir, few can write a memoir worth reading because few have the self-awareness or the willingness to truly expose themselves to readers’ judgment. In the absence of a “witness to history” narrative (the inherent momentum of which carries a reader forward), that self-exposure is essential to the memoirist’s success.

Jahren has no such narrative. She has her own story, and through luminous writing she makes it more than enough. She is a paleobotanist and, more broadly, a student of plants and trees. The book chronicles her journey into science and then through science. It is a journey that appears to have been unavoidable and inevitable, given the essential character she reveals in her pages. The story is enlivened by her sidekick Bill, as unique an individual as you are likely to find in nonfiction. She meets him when she is a graduate student leading undergraduates on a field trip. During this week-long expedition the students dig holes in the rural dirt, analyze what they find, and dig more holes. Bill is by far the best digger, and he—oddly—has brought his own, custom-made shovel. “Hell, yes,” he explains. “I wasn’t going to leave this thing unattended for six weeks.”

Turns out Bill has troglodytic tendencies, having recently resided for some time within a hole he dug in his parents’ yard. He becomes an essential part of Jahren’s story, the sort of character a novelist couldn’t invent but as crucial to the success of this book as sugar is to a cake.

Unlike the narrative Strayed's in Wild, there is no great quest at the heart of Lab Girl, no objective. Jahren is simply trying to be a scientist, to think like a scientist, and to do science. I was appalled to learn how difficult it is for academic research scientists to find and sustain funding, and how paltry that funding is when they do receive it. (The picture she paints in this regard is a microcosm of America losing its way as a great and leading nation, but don’t get me started …) A good deal of Lab Girl chronicles the various kleptomaniacal and “repurposing” ventures Bill and Jahren undertake in order to collect and maintain the necessary tools to actually do research. This is a picture of a working scientist as light-fingered McGyver, a delightful portrait that’s very different from the one most of us hold in our heads. If Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the sleek, silky greyhound of modern American science, Hope Jahren is the limping, determined junkyard dog, a scruffy yet surprisingly creature.

Science as Jahren and many academic researchers practice it is grueling, thankless work that seems to involve relentless, underfunded, resourceful creativity in the middle of the night. From what I can tell, Jahren does all her lab work at night, following a full day of teaching students. I began to wonder if she ever slept.

Jahren is humble and self-effacing, full of doubt but also full of ecstatic joy when she is able to think clearly, to see differently, to understand something for the first time. The moment when she makes her first discovery is, quite literally, a jewel for her—or at least a semi-precious stone. Working alone at night in a borrowed lab, she discovers that the mineral that fortifies the seeds of hackberry trees is opal.

“I stood and absorbed this revelation as my life turned a page, and my first scientific discovery shone, as even the cheapest plastic toy does when it is new. I didn’t want to touch anything, because I was a visitor. So I stood and looked out the window, waiting for the sun to come up, and eventually a few tears ran down my face. I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother—or because I felt like I was nobody’s daughter—or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.”

Reading Jahren, one gets an indelible impression of someone whose life and work are absolutely inextricable. Her story is raw and compelling and revealing. She gives us glimpses, here and there, of the actual science she does, which I found tantalizing. I wanted more, and I have high hopes that we’ll see it, because she’s correct: Hope Jahren sure can write.