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Lab Girl

Cover of Lab Girl

Lab Girl

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An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she's studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl
is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren's remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom's labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done "with both the heart and the hands"; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
Jahren's probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.
Music for the Audio Edition:
Composed by Katelyn Sweeney Ching
Margaret Kocher, Cellist
Katelyn Sweeney Ching, Pianist
Mark Robinson, Audio Engineer
Copyright 2016
An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she's studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl
is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren's remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom's labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done "with both the heart and the hands"; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
Jahren's probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. Lab Girl opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be.
Music for the Audio Edition:
Composed by Katelyn Sweeney Ching
Margaret Kocher, Cellist
Katelyn Sweeney Ching, Pianist
Mark Robinson, Audio Engineer
Copyright 2016
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  • From the cover 3

    A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each 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.

    A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing; they are both just waiting. Their waiting differs, however, in that the seed is waiting to flourish while the tree is only waiting to die. When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don't look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters, because the single birch tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.

    A coconut is a seed that's as big as your head. It can float from the coast of Africa across the entire Atlantic Ocean and then take root and grow on a Caribbean island. In contrast, orchid seeds are tiny: one million of them put together add up to the weight of a single paper clip. Big or small, most of every seed is actually just food to sustain a waiting embryo. The embryo is a collection of only a few hundred cells, but it is a working blueprint for a real plant with root and shoot already formed.

    When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago. The hard coat that surrounds a peach pit, a sesame or mustard seed, or a walnut's shell mostly exists to prevent this expansion. In the laboratory, we simply scratch the hard coat and add a little water and it's enough to make almost any seed grow. I must have cracked thousands of seeds over the years, and yet the next day's green never fails to amaze me. Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you're supposed to be.

    After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant's yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory. I wonder where it is right now.

    Each beginning is the end of a waiting. 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.
About the Author-
  • HOPE JAHREN is an award-winning scientist who has been pursuing independent research in paleobiology since 1996, when she completed her PhD at University of California Berkeley and began teaching and researching first at the Georgia Institute of Technology and then at Johns Hopkins University. She is the recipient of three Fulbright Awards and is one of four scientists, and the only woman, to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given within the Earth Sciences. She was a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu from 2008 to 2016, where she built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories, with support from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. She currently holds the J. Tuzo Wilson professorship at the University of Oslo, Norway.
    hopejahrensurecanwrite.com
    jahrenlab.com
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Starting off in a clipped monotone, Hope Jahren's memoir of her childhood on a rather cold, hushed Minnesota homestead does not immediately engage listeners. However, her reporting on her youthful adventures in her father's local college lab foreshadows some coming delights. Not until her own passionate engagement with trees, soil, plants, seeds, and the tedious tasks and explosive discoveries of her own lab work does the narration blossom. As Jahren recounts her journeys with her troubled yet dedicated lab partner, Bill--from California to the North Pole, Norway, and many tree-studded lands in between--she beautifully contrasts intricate details of plants and trees and the stultifying sexism of academic life. A new respect for trees is inevitable after listening to Jahren's impassioned stories of her life among them. D.P.D. © AudioFile 2016, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 15, 2016
    Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, recounts her unfolding journey to discover “what it’s like to be a plant” in this darkly humorous, emotionally raw, and exquisitely crafted memoir. In clever prose, Jahren distills what it means to be one of those researchers who “love their calling to excess.” She describes the joy of working alone at night, the “multidimensional glory” of a manic episode, scavenging jury-rigged equipment from a retiring colleague, or spontaneously road-tripping with students to a roadside monkey preserve. She likens elements of her scientific career to a plant world driven by need and instinct, comparing the academic grant cycle to the resource management of a deciduous tree and the experience of setting up her first—desperately underfunded—basement lab to ambitious vines that grow quickly wherever they can. But the most extraordinary and delightful element of her narrative is her partnership with Bill, a taciturn student who becomes both her lab partner and her sarcastic, caring best friend. It’s a rare portrait of a deep relationship in which the mutual esteem of the participants is unmarred by sexual tension. For Jahren, a life in science yields the gratification of asking, knowing, and telling; for the reader, the joy is in hearing about the process as much as the results.

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