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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

#RPLDiscover: "Lab Girl" by Hope Jahren

Review by Brett Peto
Public Services Assistant
Reference & Adult Services Department


You know the special lines when you see them. They move the plot, yes. They describe something, sure. They provoke thought, of course.

But they move the plot in an unpredictable direction, or link certain things together in an unforgettable way, or provoke thoughts that seem obvious once you have them in mind.

There are lots of special lines in Lab Girl, a memoir of renowned geobiologist Hope Jahren's long career in a scientific field I didn't know much about.

"Each beginning is the end of a waiting," Jahren says. "We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited."

Jahren knows a little about waiting. Growing up in Minnesota, her childhood was full of snow, cold, gardening with her mother, "noting each instance of symbolism within Pilgrim's Progress on separate recipe cards," and visiting her father's lab at the community college almost every evening. To her, "there is nothing in the world more perfect than a slide rule."

There's also nothing more perfect than building a lab from scratch. Jahren has "given warmth and life to three empty rooms, each one bigger and better than the last."

Her latest is in Honolulu with the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. It's her church, where she figures out what she believes. It's the place where the guilt "over what I haven't done is supplanted by all of the things that I am getting done." It's full of thought, contemplation, experimentation.

Which Jahren has done plenty of over her career, publishing 70 studies in 40 journals so far, with more on the way.

She's not only a successful scientist. She's a successful writer, too, blending scientific precision with poetic sensibilities, taking the long view, seeing the big picture, as when she delves into poignant, brief, thoughtful examinations of leaves, trees, roots, cacti, evolution, and more.

"A vine makes it up as it goes along."

"A cactus doesn't live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn't killed it yet."

"Soil is the naturally produced graffiti that results from tensions between the biological and geological realms."

"A tree's wood is also its memoir."

"A leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace."

In some works, language like this can be distracting, but Jahren anchors it in knowledge you know she's developed over decades.

Like how leaves are stacked to maximize photosynthesis, with small, pale ones at the top and large, deeply green ones at the bottom, which catch the sun when wind parts the upper branches.

Or how "a vine can grow an entire foot in length on just one sunny day."

Or how tree siblings remember whether their childhood was warm or cold, so much so they stop growing to prepare for winter at the same time every year, regardless of whether it fits where they actually live.

Or how just $7.3 billion is awarded to the National Science Foundation each year, which covers all curiosity-driven science: "not just biology, but also geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and the more esoteric forms of engineering and computer science as well."

Jahren fights for funding every day, week, month, and year, stringing together private and public sources as she "tortures spreadsheets" to make ends meet. As a professor, she has tenure, but her lab could still fold at any time.

This also means she can't pay the most important person in her life—Bill, her lab assistant—much more than $35,000 per year, including benefits, even though he has 20 years of experience.

"It is maddening to me that the best and hardest-working scientist I've ever known has no long-term job security," Jahren says. "The only thing that I can think to do if I lose funding is to threaten to quit, which would probably just leave both of us out on the street. As research scientists, we will never, ever be secure."

The core of the book is Jahren's relationship with Bill, whom she met as a graduate student assistant instructor on a field trip through the Central Valley of California. Bill, a student, "looked like a young Johnny Cash and was perennially clad in jeans and a leather jacket even in 105-degree heat."

He liked to dig holes away from the class, studying their parts and layers with the Keys to Soil Taxonomy. They talked. Jahren realized the other students didn't exclude him; Bill separated himself.

And when she left for Georgia Tech, she took him with her.

So much happens between them—one particularly memorable episode is an incident involving late-night glass-blowing—it's not unexpected when Jahren tries to explain how her relationship with Bill complements her relationship with her husband, Clint.

"People still puzzle over the two of us, Bill and me," Jahren says. "Are we siblings? Soul mates? Comrades? Novitiates? Accomplices? We 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."

Labels don't fit.

"But people that I meet still seem to want a label for what is between us...I don't have an answer for that one," says Jahren. "I do us because us is what I know how to do."

Perhaps Lab Girl's most special lines arrive on page 277.

"I'm good at science because I'm not good at listening," she writes. "I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can't do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can't understand the present or see the future any better than I can."

These contradictory messages haven't stopped Jahren from practicing the science she loves.

"Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along," she says. "I don't take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn't take this job too seriously. Except for when you should."

You can find Lab Girl in Adult Nonfiction, 580.92 JAH.

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