“I will never stop being ravenously hungry for science, no matter how well it feeds me,” writes Hope Jahren, a paleobiologist, winner of three Fulbright Awards, a professor at the University of Hawaii and now author of a marvelous memoir, Lab Girl. What’s it like being a female research scientist? You’ll have no better tour guide than Jahren, who is witty, thoughtful, informative and who writes exceedingly well.
Jahren, whose work focuses on plant life, grew up playing beneath the chemical benches in her father’s community college lab in Minnesota, knowing that someday she would have her own lab. Today she does (her third), calling it her refuge, her asylum and “a place to go on sacred days, as is a church.”
Her lab partner, Bill, is her loyal sidekick, whom she adores like a fraternal twin. Their adventures, chronicled here in high style, include overturning a van during a snowstorm, hanging off the sides of cliffs in Northern Alaska and tromping through Irish highlands in search of moss.
Jahren also writes about the difficulty of being a female scientist, sometimes forced to work with “pasty middle-aged men who regarded me as they would a mangy stray that had slipped in through an open basement window.” She relates the ongoing task of securing funding—in their early days as a team, Bill lived in his car when he couldn’t afford his own place.
Jahren shares her struggles with bipolar disorder (although this isn’t the focus of the book), and the joy of finally meeting the man she would marry and becoming a mother. Along the way, she includes elegant short chapters about the natural world, artfully explaining the way in which various species’ struggle for survival mirrors her own.
Lab Girl presents an edifying and entertaining look into the world of a serious research scientist.