A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Hope Jahren is a scientist, now based in Hawai’i, but she’s worked in and built laboratories all over the USA. She’s a plant scientist, a palaeobotanist and geobiologist, searching for the back history of plants on earth, to understand how they do the things they do now. She’s also a woman working in a predominantly masculine world, and independent to a degree that is often described as ‘fiercely’, but from the evidence in this book is more like ‘phenomenally’, ‘blinkeredly’ (is that a word?), or ‘profoundly’. Lab Girl is a story of how she became a scientist, where she met Bill, her other lab half, how she teaches on field trips, how things went wrong in the lab, in their lives, and on road trips, and what they found out anyway, her husband Clint, how she ignored and then learned to manage her bipolar condition, how she deals with sexism in the academy, and the birth of her son. Every other chapter is a few pages about plant science, linked to the stage in her life that we’re about to read. A great deal of the book is about lab technique and protocol, and it is absolutely fascinating.
I say ‘a story’ because this book is by no means the whole story of Jahren’s life: it is a fairly slim volume. Vast amounts have been left out, and so (as I tell my own students), since negative evidence is often as important as the stuff you find, these omissions tell you as much about Jahren as the things she shows you. Her family are barely mentioned: she has three older brothers who disappear from the narrative as soon as she goes to school. She doesn’t mention her father again after the first appreciative story of her upbringing in his laboratory where he prepared his next day’s classes every evening, so that she, a schoolgirl, learned college level physics. Her mother is mentioned occasionally: an angry woman, a disappointed woman, a woman who had to leave college because women could be thrown out of a science career much more easily in those days. Lab Girl is dedicated to her mother, but she’s not part of the life that Jahren tells here. Jahren and Clint got married in impulse in Norway, with no family or friends present: from a US cultural perspective I think this might be considered … independent.
Then there’s Bill, the unsurnamed lab technician and fellow scientist, and (I assume) co-author of many of Jahren’s scientific publications. He is a silent, dogged, persistent presence in her life, essential to her mental stability and professional practice, an equal partner in their research and teaching. He’s a powerful character, but very little is told us about him, and there must be a good reason for that privacy. What matters is his loyalty as a collaborator, as a friend, and as her employee for twenty years or more, enduring astonishing levels of insecurity and homelessness because the lab was home and that was where they lived, and pretty much all they had. I can see why campus administrators, van rental insurers and security staff might baulk at their presence, but Bill and Jahren are clearly good people. We read two or three tremendous stories of explosions, crashes, and loss of data, and they’re character-building, not catastrophic (though I did groan at the utter stupidity of spending days collecting tiny moss fragments in Ireland without even thinking about export permits). Their passion for teaching science and making the students understand its importance is one of their driving forces. The other is asking questions about plants, and then doing the months of painstaking work to observe, collect data, think about the implications and work out what is going on. In between classes and experiments, Jahren struggles to find the funding she needs to keep herself and Bill fed and housed, and her lab stocked with chemicals and equipment.
Looking at Jahren’s website, things become a little sharper. She’s tough and realistic about how to make your graduate career work (for example: read an article every day, which is good advice). She’s clearly passionate about combating sexism in the North American scientific establishment, and sexual harassment on campus. Recent news stories about campus rape in the USA should be bolstered by an awareness that harassment also exists in the classrooms and staff offices. There isn’t much detail about this in Lab Girl, but Jahren’s blog is urgent about its reality. The only story in Lab Girl about sexism in science illustrates Jahren’s attitude about what to tell and what not to tell. She doesn’t tell stories belonging to other people, but she sure does tell about the people who she wants to expose for their outrageous professional behaviour. In the instance of institutional sexism it’s a man called Walter who headed her department at Johns Hopkins, and banned her from her own laboratory while she was pregnant and on medical leave, causing her acute psychological distress, as well as rage shared by her husband. We do only hear Jahren’s perspective. Her honest accounts of her manic episodes before she got the right medication are terrifying. Perhaps this is why she was banned from her lab while pregnant because she couldn’t take her medication until she reached the third trimester, and so perhaps the entire faculty was nervously awaiting a psychotic episode too close to chemicals and burners. However, Walter didn’t tell her directly; he told her husband, one man speaking to another about the woman in his keeping. This was approximately six years ago. No wonder Jahren and her husband were outraged; no wonder she was distraught.
Jahren is working in Hawai’i now, living with her young son and her husband, and Bill runs her lab and has his own home (thank goodness he moved on from camper vans). She is a compelling, electric writer, and I loved this book.
Hope Jahren, Lab Girl. A Story of Trees, Science and Love (Fleet, 2015), £16.99 hb, ISBN 978-0-349-00619-2
Kate posts two or three reviews a week about the books that have enthused her greatly, at katemacdonald.net.