Lab girl by Geobiologist Hope Jahren is one of the best books I have read recently. There are many reasons I enjoyed the book and I will discuss some of them in the review below.
Jahren starts off her own journey side by side with the journey of a tree starting from the seed stage. These are some of the best parts of the book. Fascinating and rich with wonderful details, these chapters are beautifully written.
“A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for hundred years with no problem. What exactly the seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance – to take its one and only chance to grow.”
She writes about this lotus seed that waited for 2000 years to take its chance! There are many more really interesting nuggets she discusses as the seed takes each important step in its growth period. As I read these chapters and followed the seed’s journey from germination to sprouting roots, forming the first leaves, making food, fighting enemies, looking out for its friends all while blossoming into a whole tree, I painted such a vivid picture in my mind. This picture continues to stay with me and has made my mind go back to the book every time I stop to look at a tree. I think that is a great achievement as a writer to make readers think of the book and what it has to say for a long time after you close it!
Hope Jahren is a remarkable person and while reading her travails and successes navigating the research world, I found myself often recalling a similar instance(s) while doing my own research work. For instance, she describes how she felt when she used X ray diffraction to identify the mineral in the hackberry pit that she was studying and the feelings she experienced upon discovering it.
“Until I phoned someone, the concrete knowledge that opal was the mineral that fortified each seed on each hackberry tree was mine alone. Whether or not this was something worth knowing seemed another problem for another day. 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.”
This feeling was my own drive to do research with all its ups and downs. Even if the discovery from an everyday experiment may not be entirely new, aspects of it are still yours and that is a special feeling. It was my feel good drug and kept me going especially when many other experiments would routinely fail!
Jahren’s struggle with Bipolar disorder was hard to read. Of late, I have been reading a lot about the disorder and watched a few movies where I could see how difficult life can be for people suffering from it. She writes this chapter as just another part of her life and I deeply admired the courage it takes to do that, to make peace with it and accept it.
I enjoyed reading about everything that she went through with Bill, her friend, partner in research and also in every other crazy adventure. Bill is an extremely intelligent, skilled and eccentric researcher. I had mixed feelings while reading the many colorful episodes Bill and Hope go through together. At times I was rooting for them and during others I was baffled! Although there are many things I felt I would do differently from Hope Jahren, I found plenty to admire about her. I have come to realize that women should and must find qualities that we can appreciate in each other. I find that we are often our first and harshest critics (including yours truly). It may be hard but if we don’t find it in us to see the good in other women, even those we disagree with, then it is going to be even more hard to crack any glass ceiling!
In summary, the book is beautifully structured and the juxtaposition of a tree’s life with Jahren’s own was a very interesting idea and it works here. Of course there are things I still wanted to know more about. For instance, although she does touch on her work-life balance, I wanted to learn more about her struggles of having a flourishing and demanding career and having a young child at the same time. She does say “I will not be this child’s mother. Instead, I will be his father”. I loved that statement! I have always felt that women including myself carry around a guilt basket about not being good enough mothers to our children. Jahren carries it too. However, just reading that statement in the book was oddly relieving. I also wanted to understand why she drifted away from her family, especially her mother to whom she dedicates the book and everything else she writes. Oh well, may be in the next book!
I encourage everyone to borrow/buy “Lab Girl” and hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Write me your thoughts!