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Lab Girl

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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 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.

290 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2016

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About the author

Hope Jahren

11 books1,960 followers
HOPE JAHREN is an award-winning scientist who has been pursuing independent research in paleobiology since 1996, when she completed her PhD at UC 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 in the Earth Sciences. Currently, she is a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where in 2008 she built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories, with support from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
March 11, 2021
Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.
While it may be a beautiful life in many ways, it has not been an easy one. Anne Hope Jahren is a geobiologist currently working at the University of Oslo. This represents a bit of homecoming, as her ancestors emigrated from Norway to Minnesota. Her father was a science teacher at a community college. She writes about having the run of the science facilities at the school, when she was a kid, while with her dad, and loving it. Science was clearly in her blood from an early age. Jahren is a much awarded researcher who studies biological bits from ancient plants to determine climatic conditions of their time. Incorporating biology into geology is what has set her work apart. She won the Donath Medal from the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union’s Macelwane Award. (Yeah, I never heard of them either, but they are a pretty big deal. Winning both is an even bigger deal, as only four people have ever done that and Jahren is the only woman so honored.)

Hope Jahren - from her site

A good memoir, like any good book, runs on two tracks. One is the up-front story, the author begins here, winds up there, and notes their stops, people and experiences, and what they learned, observed, thought and felt along the way. In this case Hope Jahren's personal journey begins with her being a very science-focused kid, then offers a brief look at her school experience. We follow her from grad student to doctorate, from California to Georgia, to Norway, to Hawaii, building labs, working in the field, blowing things up (not on purpose), slogging through industrial strength muck, being temporarily deformed by a serious overexposure to poison ivy, and other fun adventures. We follow her from single to coupled to mom in what seems a flash. But mostly we follow her working life

The second element of a good book is what the author can tell us about the world. One of the wonderful things about Lab Girl is that Jahren includes short chapters on biology, things like the importance of sugar to life and how plants are the only things that can make it from inorganic ingredients. There are chapters on the hardiness of the hackberry tree, on what to avoid when selecting a tree of your own to plant, on the value of wood to trees, and one particularly fascinating bit on mushrooms.
You may think a mushroom is a fungus. This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man. [insert mandatory joke here….although sometimes a man can be a dick…ok?] Every toadstool, from the deliciously edible to the deathly poisonous, is merely a sex organ that is attached to something more whole, complex, and hidden. [I leave the joke construction for you to complete here, something like usually not] Underneath every mushroom is a web of stringy hyphae that may extend for kilometers, [if you are now thinking about large swaths of unwashed dishes and undone laundry, I apologize] wrapping around countless clumps of soil and holding the landscape together. The ephemeral mushroom appears briefly above the surface while the webbing that anchors it lives for years within a darker and richer world. [World of Warcraft?]
There are plenty more, all short, and all very interesting. I loved these, although not all lend themselves so compellingly to snarkiness.

The splicing of these two tracks takes place in following her career. We see her struggling, not only with personal challenges, but with the barriers that make working at science a daunting prospect. This is a world of diminishing resources and steady pressure to publish and dig up the grant money that funds research and university teaching. It is impressive seeing how tough it actually is for someone wanting to practice science while earning a pittance. It is not only fiscal constraints that get in the way. She writes of the collegial impediments of being a female in what has been very much a male club, offering brief glimpses at what gender-based resistance looks like. She also presents a very clear, and sometimes horrifying portrait of what it means to be a scientist. Glamorous it ain't, particularly given how hard she works. But the joy she experiences at working at what she loves and discovering new things most definitely comes across.

There are considerable gaps in Jahren's personal tale. A mention of an occasional boyfriend remains all we learn of her social life for most of the book. There is not nearly enough about her experiences as a kid. And, most glaringly, while it is possible to figure out what malady afflicts her from the description of events, that this malady is not overtly mentioned for so much of the book makes it feel, when it is finally addressed, that it came from out of left field.

Jahren leavens her tale with an appreciation for the odd, and sometimes the absurd. On a field trip with Bill and her students, they visit a monkey jungle that offers some nice smirking opportunities. This is not Mary Roach, snorting-your-drink-out-your-nose funny, but it is clear that Jahren has a pretty lively sense of humor, particularly in regards to a student who takes an internship at a zoo.

She takes pains to juxtapose how plants develop and adapt with how people do. This is a wonderful element.

Another lovely element in the book is her bff relationship with Bill Hagopian. Working on her doctorate while he is an undergrad, she spots him as the best lab person she has ever seen, and takes him on as her assistant. Their relationship is a bit like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with Bill offering some real world guidance when Jahren is beset by an attack of madness. It is maybe more that for Jarhen, Bill is like a brother from another mother, a true, if non-genetic, family member. Their connection permeates and strengthens the telling.

Bill Hagopian – from Jahrenlab.com

I did not think that Lab Girl was a great book on the order of H is for Hawk, but I do think it is a damn good one, succeeding in its dicot-omous mission of telling her personal story while also educating readers.

Jahren’s success as a researcher and promoter of women in science has increased the hope that many talented female minds will seek to plant their careers in scientific fields and grow great forests of knowledge that might otherwise have failed to sprout, and that would be a beautiful thing, indeed.

Review first posted – 12/16/2016

Publication dates
-----4/5/2016 - hardcover
-----3/7/2017 - Trade Paperback

Summer 2019 - EXTRA STUFF has been moved to (what is currently) comment #8 below
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews596 followers
November 12, 2019
I love "Lab Girl".....love, love, love, LOVE this book!!!!!!

I have a new crush on 'both' Hope Jahren, ( Geochemist and author of "Lab Girl), and Hope's lab partner, Bill!!!

I'm moved - inspired - speechless - breathless- ( teary-eyed throughout this entire reading experience). I'm grateful -- altered having read Hope Jahren's memoir!!!!

5+++++ stars from me!!!!!!!

Tidbits....( since I couldn't begin to say enough wonderful things found on EVERY PAGE)
.....OMG.... anybody who is 'close' to me ( really close to me)... knows about my history with sugar.... starting from infancy. Sixteen cavities in my baby teeth at age 3... and my years of my 'desire' for sugar. I also happen to be a TREE nut....( my iPhone has an overload of photos that I take on my hikes. Every tree we've planted - front and back yard - has a very emotional history. They are named after my mom, dad, uncle, etc.
I've stories throughout our garden - great stories about each plant!!! --- our community luv-tree ( the large walnut tree in the back), has dozens and dozens of treasures - crystals, stones, and other objects friends have either made or bought to hang from branches.
Our blue-tinged spruce ( picea pungens) tree in our front yard -- HUGE SHADE Tree... was the childhood tree which Hope remembers most when she was growing up in Minnesota. Our tree --'Uncle Louie' -- wasn't much taller than me when we first moved in ( after Uncle Louie planted it) over 30 years ago --- today is so BIG... it's scary at times!

......BUT.... with all the many types of trees with have --variety of leaves - flowers - plants - what I never 'really' thought about was that "LEAVES MAKE SUGAR"!!!!
MY glucose brain has been getting my supply from LEAVES!!! ( chocolate covered ones... haha)!

LAB GIRL just excites me! I was a science major in college too -( Kinesiology) --but man.... it never filled my heart the way - specifically plants - does for Hope Jahren. Her passion is out-of-this- world beautiful and exceptional!!!!
Oh.....and I laughed - and smiled when she said, the chilly air smell of eucalyptus always reminds her of Berkeley! ME TOO!!!!!! I lived in the Berkeley Hills surrounded by eucalyptus.... and that smell is tattooed on me--equated with Berkeley forever.

I was also so excited 'with' HOPE when she discovered hackberry pits contain opal....
Bill ( with his dry sense of humor), was 'also' bright-eye & bright-ears to learn Hope's news. Hope's next goal was to discern a way to back-calculate the temperature that governed its formation 'within' the seed! WHO DOES THAT??? I was mesmerized!!!
Her next task was to show that it also worked 'within' a TREE!!!! I was becoming orgasmic!!

I could go on and on --- haha 3 sentences my ass with this review!!! Tell me where to send this woman money.... I'll donate to her cause of study!!!

PS... I'm sooo excited ... I just 'now' checked ( listened to a sample), Hope Jahren does the narration to her own audiobook!!!! Yippy!!!! I'm going to listen to her while I walk in the enchanted forests!!!!

PSS... I wrote this review faster than the speed of light - out of pure excitement-- forgive my mistakes and nutty obsessive enthusiasm!!! -- but maybe a few of you have tolerated me before - and found a way to just let me be.
Thank You from my deepest heart of truths if you read this!!!!!

Perfect FIT BOOK for me!!!
Profile Image for Debbie "DJ".
352 reviews403 followers
July 31, 2016
So yesterday, I had to take down a smaller tree in my yard. I knew what was happening as I pulled on the root, seeing the main taproot, the one my tree had grown straight down and spent it's lifetime trying to maintain. Then came the side roots, the ones put out for stability, called runners. My tree had suckers, green shoots coming from the runners, still living, still choosing life, even though its main source had died. Taking down that tree of mine was an emotional experience. I'll never look at a tree the same way after reading this book.

Hope Jahren is truly gifted. Her memoir was fantastic! I loved how she explained the science of paleobiology in easy to understand terminology, some of which, as a geologist myself, I had never fully understood. But, this book is so much more! It's her story. Of being a woman in a mans world, of her long term relationship with her assistant Bill. She is always in the pursuit of knowledge, and their travels take them all over the world. Always on a shoestring budget, these travels are adventurous, and downright daring. They had me laughing and at times crying. Our destruction of our planet is truly heartbreaking, but Jahren does not lecture or make this the main focus. One of the things she asks us readers is to plant a tree of our own. My dead tree will be replaced, and knowing what I do now, I'm pretty darn excited about the whole process!

To quote another Goodreads reviewer (yes you Cynthia) the women are on a roll this year!

Profile Image for Miranda Reads.
1,589 reviews157k followers
May 27, 2021
So as someone currently going for her PhD in Biophysics...I honestly thought I'd love this one more.

I mean, I did enjoy the botanical bits - loved learning about the trees and other plants that the author worked with.

But I have complicated feelings regarding how the author treated those in her lab and those around her.

It felt like she was crossing the line so many times under the guise of loving science but in reality, she was abusing the power from her position and bullying students and other workers to get what she wanted.

I think I've just been in academia too long that I need to take a step back before I write this review.

YouTube | Blog | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook | Snapchat @miranda_reads
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,363 followers
April 14, 2017
A high 4 stars. I can't possibly describe what Lab Girl is about or review it with any linearity, because this is a tangled web of strands of memoir, natural history, philosophical musings and random thoughts. Here are my own thoughts in no particular order:

-This is an ode to trees and plants.
-This is a love letter to friendship generally and to Jahren's friend and lab partner Bill in particular.
-This is a reflection on the potency of motherhood.
-This is a peek into the lives of quirky people trying to make a place for themselves in the world.
-This is a plea for conservation and better funding of scientific research.
-This is a shout out to all women who work in traditionally male professions.
-This is a stark account of living life with bipolar disease.
-This is funny, sad, affecting, thoughtful, and consistently surprising.

And did I mention that Jahren is a crazy good writer? There's something unconventional and potent about how she phrases her story and thoughts.

A note on the audio: Jahren reads it herself. At times, her narration is painfully slow. But her voice does convey a lot of emotion.

Thanks to a few GR friends and their enthusiastic reviews. I never would have considered reading this one otherwise.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,780 reviews14.2k followers
February 20, 2016
3.5 When I first started reading this I was more interested in the chapters, which alternated with her personal story, on the trees and plants. That changed though as I read on. Loved her story too, her beginning passion for the sciences, her childhood and going with her dad to his lab, her first jobs which I found eye opening, and her wonderful long term friendship with Bill. He would become her lab partner, the person she bounced ideas off of and shared triumphs and disappointments with. The truly difficult work of starting a new lab, the constant quest for funding, grants and other studies. Trying to formulate new experiments that would be found worthy of significant money. The many years of struggle, constant paperwork and the tweaking of ideas. The chapters on plants, trees and seeds were illuminating but sometimes a bit mind boggling.. still learned and immeasurable amount there too.

I was blown away by the clarity of her writing, her passion, her vulnerability all of which shone through in this book. Her honesty with her doubts, mistakes and the hard work that this type of career entails. This is a book to reread there is so much information in it about the nature we see out of our windows and take for granted. She showed me a whole different way of looking at these things. Simple wonderful.

ARC from publisher.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,717 followers
August 1, 2016
I am not a scientist, but I loved this memoir about science.

Hope Jahren is a botanist who is passionate about her field. Lab Girl is a beautifully written book about her life — her childhood in Minnesota with taciturn parents; how she developed a love of trees and plants; her early experiences in laboratory work; the ongoing struggle to get research funding; her battle with anxiety and depression; the longtime friendship with her lab partner, Bill; and how she eventually met her spouse and became a mother. (Warning to sensitive readers: there is a description of a difficult childbirth, and the scene made me so anxious I had to shut the book and take a short break.)

Jahren intersperses the chapters of her personal life with anecdotes about nature. A few of these "tree chapters" were great, but I sometimes grew impatient with the plant and soil lectures and wanted to get back to Jahren's story, which I found more compelling.

Overall, I truly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates a well-written memoir or who likes reading about the life of a scientist. If I ever get the opportunity to fund some research, I'm giving Jahren a call.

Favorite Quotes
"People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They're wrong. That's like saying you have to know how to knit to be a housewife, or that you have to know Latin to study the Bible. Sure, it helps, but there will be time for that. What comes first is a question..."

"[My father] taught me that there is no shame in breaking something, only in not being able to fix it."

"The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily. Can you imagine growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves? Where 'How are you?' is considered a personal question that one is not obligated to answer? Where you are trained to always wait for others to first mention what is troubling them, even as you are trained to never mention what is troubling you? It must be a survival skill left over from the old Viking days, when long silences were required to prevent unnecessary homicides during the long, dark winters when quarters were close and supplies were dwindling."

"[My mother] was always angry and I could never piece together why. With the self-focus peculiar to children, I convinced myself that it must be because of something that I had said or done. In the future, I vowed to myself, I would guard my words better."

"My mother taught me that reading is a kind of work, and that every paragraph merits exertion, and in this way, I learned how to absorb difficult books."

"The very attributes that rendered me a nuisance to all of my previous teachers — my inability to let things go coupled with my tendency to overdo everything — were exactly what my science professors liked to see."

"Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more..."

"Working in the hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help. Twenty-five years later, I still cannot reject this as an inaccurate worldview."

"Establishing yourself as a scientist takes an awfully long time. The riskiest part is learning what a true scientist is and then taking the first shaky steps down that path, which will become a road, which will become a highway, which will maybe someday lead you home. A true scientist doesn't perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge. This transition between doing what you're told and telling yourself what to do generally occurs midway through a dissertation."

"America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn't want to pay for it."

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

"Love and learning are similar in that they can never be wasted."

"Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can't possibly be what you are."

"There's nothing like having a parent die to make you realize how alone you are in the world."

"I'm good at science because I'm not good at listening. I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simpleminded. 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."
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,638 followers
July 8, 2020
Fascinating, fast, often moving look at the twining between trees and the life of a hugely accomplished plant scientist. The tree details were excellent throughout, and I enjoyed Jahren's quick, lucid writing, and the way she details the hustle she and her long-term colleague Bill exhibit in putting their careers together. If one is interested in work in the sciences, this is a clear-eyed look at the many short-comings and beautiful moments that can come with it. The writing has some odd beats (characters are described vaguely, and sometimes very late -never will I forgot learning 180 pages into the book that I'd been picturing Bill wrong), and the central relationship in the book remains strangely underexamined. Most of all, I appreciated Jahren's clear-eyed, frank look at her own bi-polar disorder.
Profile Image for Iris P.
171 reviews206 followers
May 20, 2017
Lab Girl

★★★★★ 5 Stars!!

I think something really special happens when a scientist has the ability to use the written word to successfully communicate and explain to the rest of us what they do.

It's like in Baseball when the pitcher also happens to be good at batting. It's not in their job description, we don't expect them to, but when it happens is extremely exhilarating! I don't know if Hope Jahren likes baseball, but I found her writing utterly exquisite.

As the daughter of a father who was a physics and earth science teacher and a mother who instilled in her a love for literature, Jahren charmingly blends both those passions in this remarkable memoir.
 photo Bill and Hope_zpsktrye09g.jpg
Hope and Bill in the lab

Jahren's audio narration felt a little flat at first, but she increasingly grew on me. Listening to her as she describes a difficult episode in her ongoing struggle with mental illness was heartbreaking and perhaps the most moving account I've ever heard of someone suffering from bipolar disorder. As I was listening to this particular part of her story, I found myself crying and overwhelmed by her willingness to share these painful experiences.

I have never heard a scientist of any field, speak so passionately and lyrically about what they do as Jahren does here. She captured my imagination, I have a new sense of respect for geobiologists and perhaps most importantly, for plants, what they mean for us and the viability of our planet.

Lab Girl was informative, enlightening, quirky and even funny at times. Also, I think most of us can be so lucky to find a friend as loyal as Bill, Hope's lab partner. So here's hoping that many young women read this book and get inspired by Jahren's life and her admirable devotion to science.
Profile Image for DeB.
999 reviews252 followers
November 27, 2016
"For trees that live in the snow, winter is a journey. Plants do not travel through space as we do; as a rule they do not move from place to place. Instead they travel through time, enduring one event after the other, and in this sense, winter is a particularly long trip. Trees follow the standard advice given for any extended travel within a rustic setting: pack carefully."

I came away, after reading Lab Girl, awed and delighted. How amazing to be able to walk along side the mind of a scientist, who queries an apparent norm or discerns an aberration, and then has the drive and patience to follow through with hours of tedious preparation and careful research. Hope Jahren's memoir is about her life, yes, her personal challenges, the misogynistic world of scientists, bipolar disorder, but also her inspiration and courage, and passion for her best friend Bill and eventually her own family.

I came away, enthused and awed about LIFE, that of the plants which in their infancy begin as seeds in their casings and develop as embryos, and the optimism required for any to germinate and grow. I learned about willow trees that "taught" others miles away how to ward off killing caterpillars, and plants that could live without water for years, just waiting to reawaken with rain, known as resurrection plants, "ugly and small and useless and special."

When I look at the trees in my yard - and there are many- I realize that the three forty year old trees must have access to an aquifer I haven't been aware of, as have about a dozen tall trees the same age as these near me. Down the block, I have just realized, the old trees are not as tall or have died long ago.

"In order to accumulate all of the soil nutrients that thirty five pounds of leaves require, our tree must first absorb and then evaporate at least eight thousand gallons of water from the soil. That's enough to fill a tanker truck."

I've just looked at these trees with new eyes, thanks to Lab Girl, with due respect for their enterprise while my lawn has browned from water restrictions in my semi-arid climate.

I love a book that can inspire, teach and motivate without my realizing it, when I simply settled in for a comfy story that I'd heard was "Really good". Yes, it is really good - I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Guy Austin.
109 reviews29 followers
July 29, 2016
I found this in an Independent Book store one day, not by actually seeing the book, there was a note on a card attached to an empty shelf.

It said, “Lab Girl by Hope Jahren - THE BEST BOOK I HAVE READ IN A LONG WHILE – Buy it!”

So I asked where it was and the gal behind the stacks ran off, returned, and placed it in my hand, “You'll love it I promise.” Her enthusiasm caused me to not hesitate and pay full retail on the spot.

This is not just a Memoir as far as memoirs go. It is well written with imagery and story telling. I can almost picture the young girl walking home silently with her father on a frigid late February evening in a southern Minnesota town. If the first chapter was an indicator, this is going to be a great read indeed.

And it was. This book has stayed with me.
I finished a few weeks back and had not had the time to write about it, but I have thought about it a lot.

Hope has a way of speaking about soil, leafs, stems and root systems that brings me to the point of understanding and appreciation just as she seems to have for them. I am not a science guy. She is using everyday language mixed with scientific jargon and I stop… suddenly realizing I just read a lecture on the life of the Willow Tree. I want to know more. I stare out the window next to my reading chair and see the trees in my view and they suddenly look different. Alive. Amazing, how did she do this?

It is simply fascinating. I really enjoy the way she speaks about her life and passions and ups and downs and intertwines them with the natural world that has become her life’s work. How she can make intricate concepts seems so matter of fact and entertaining is special. Much the same way she makes Bill, her assistant, sound so fascinating and entertaining and wonderful. It is strange and amazing that two people so driven and focused could happen upon each other and create a band that can create great science together.

I laughed and thought and imagined and learned along the way. What a trip.

Perhaps another book will come. I really hope another book will come. Perhaps it will be called the “The Tao of Bill.”

Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,537 followers
August 30, 2019
A rare and emotionally engaging close-up look at the development and practice of science, its empowerment and challenges, and the ability of Hope Jahren to transform influences from her father and her questing personality into a successful career in fields that could be called eco-geology and paleoecology. From her time helping her father manage the physics lab where he taught at a community college in suburban Minnesota, she came to appreciate the outlook of scientific inquiry, feel empowered in a laboratory full of equipment she could master, and get rewarded from problem solving. I actually wanted more about the science and her contributions, but that would impede the more substantial success this memoir has as a portrait of a partnership and marriage in work with Bill, a graduate student who became a lab manager, technician, and essential collaborator in all her research.

I so loved the snap of the quirky dialog she reconstructed from their day to day lives in the lab or on the road at exotic study sites. The humor is fresh, often slapstick, sarcastic or ironic, but it makes an effective channel for them both that combines unconditional support and brutal honesty. The scenarios with Bill that she spins out like acts on a stage careen from low points of self-deprecation and absurdist dissipation of their failures to driven efforts to reach a goal with many all-night stints in the lab or busting ass and threatening their health in the field. And sometimes they get epiphanies over results and rewarding dreams of glory over their discoveries and, more practically, some payback in near-term job security. I also loved the adventures she and Bill have in building labs at different academic postings she climbs and in their entertaining trips to scavenge equipment and in student instruction through field trips. The latter trips with students in soil science involve camping, excavations, and sampling work, occasional disasters with vehicles, and R&R trips to odd tourist spots like “Reptile World.”

Here is the kind of kidding and mock insult she could dish out to Bill if he complained too much about troubles she had led them into:
Shut up, dwarf. You just be grateful that your job is a goddamn fairy tale.

Eventually, we come to learn that Hope and Bill are both victims of stigma and dark secrets. For her, revelations concern the roots of her asocial history and her dysfunctional bouts of bipolar disorder. For his maverick character we are led to consider the contribution of his hardscrabble childhood of abject poverty and overcoming a severe trauma to one hand. This autobiographical look at their partnership can be shelved along with a limited set of books that stand out for rendering non-romantic friendships. Hold that thought. I can’t think of any close parallels in terms of lit about close work friendships in my reading, much less a team in scientific endeavors.

Interspersed with the narrative history, Jahren inserts little lyrical reveries and essays on how the lives and wonders of plants inform her understanding of herself and the planet. Many of these mental excursions make for metaphors of lessons for her own life. Like how vines gamble lightning growth and low investment in a sturdy wood body to attaining the light at the crown of the host trees they climb.
Vines resolve to fight their way up to the light by any means necessary. They do not play be the rules of the forest. …A vine finds its way to the sun not using wood, but pure grit and undiluted gall.

She dwells on how small the chances that of the zillion seeds a tree produces so few will grow to a sapling and the less than 5% of saplings will make it to a young tree a year later. When it came time for describing how she found her first love partner, Clint, she refers to how a plant in the face of new resources takes one of four choices to either “grow, repair, defend, or reproduce itself.” Finally, it was her time to grow and reproduce as a mother, and lucky for her:
The love that I had to give someone had been packed too tightly and too long in a small box, and so it all tumbled out when opened.

She had to work through the impact of the marriage to on her work marriage with Bill. Fortunately, he took it in stride:
”Guess what? We got married!”
There was a long pause while Bill looked at us blankly. “Does that mean I have to buy you a present?” he asked.
“No” answered Clint, while I simultaneously responded, “Yes.”

Jahren bravely recounts the relapse in her controlled disorder that she experienced after going off psych medications during her pregnancy. That’s a tough section suffering with her metamorphosis into paranoid, hallucinating being who is led to take recourse in ECT treatment. Those sections can stand up well among famous first-person accounts of madness.

As much as I loved the book as a window on the life of a scientist, I felt disappointed in how much her trajectory is not generally true for the majority of scientists. The obsession over work in a lab to the point of limited social development rings true from grad student beginnings onward. But from my experience in a biomedical field for 20 years (neuroscience), most scientists do not go directly from completing their PhD to a college teaching position. Instead, for most there is a period of one to several years as a post-doctoral fellow and soft-money positions as a research associate. A lab with one or two technicians rarely wins the race as the successful scientists compete well for a stable of graduate and post-doctoral students which get applied to big grant projects and generating a flood of publications. Such a typical picture of research factories and serious competition gets no coverage in the story here of Jahren’s smaller, more isolated endeavors in what she calls “curiosity driven research” that “will never result in a marketable product, useful machine, prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any material gain”. Still, the book captures a great view of the kind of creativity and unsung sacrifice that a lot of scientists go through to become a success.

Profile Image for carol..
1,566 reviews8,213 followers
Shelved as 'don-t-count'
September 21, 2019
Feeble attempt at reading a story about a female scientist, which might have been up my alley. The beginning was a challenge. I felt like the narrative was jumpy, although that might have been Jahren's attempt at an 'overview.' She eventually seems to settle and go for chronological order, but suffered enough from Daddy-Worship-Syndrome that I lost a contact in the back of my head. To make matters worse, somehow the pages got crimped and the library now insists that I owe them $22 for this book. This is definitely not $22 worth of storytelling, so I'm afraid I'm just going to hate it forever.

Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,669 reviews2,659 followers
May 24, 2016
“Because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.” This memoir puts so many things together that it shouldn’t work, yet somehow – delightfully – does. With witty anecdotes and recreated dialogue, Jahren tells about her Minnesota upbringing, her long years in education, her ultimate specialization in geobiology/botany, crossing the country to take up academic posts in Atlanta, Baltimore and Hawaii, her long-time platonic relationship with eccentric lab partner Bill, and zany road trips across America for conferences and field work.

On the serious side, she writes about how bipolar disorder complicated work life, marriage and motherhood. Add to all that the interspersed chapters illuminating aspects of plant biology and you get a truly varied and intricate narrative. What I think the author does best is simply conveying what it is like to have true passion for your work, a rare thing: “being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” You don’t have to be a science type to enjoy this book. All that’s required is curiosity about how other people live. Jahren might even inspire you to go plant a tree.

Another favorite passage:
“All the baffling things that arrived unwelcome with adulthood – tax returns and car insurance and Pap smears – none of them matter when I am in the lab. … My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe.”

P.S. Bill exists! (Lest you thought, like I did for a while, that he was just so kooky he must be made up.) He appears in the photo illustrating this Popular Science article.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,583 followers
May 5, 2017
Hope Jahren is a paleo-botanist. She studies growing plants as well as ancient ones. She has been working as a scientist her entire life, and her dedication to the profession shines through every single page of this book.

Chapters about her own life alternate with chapters about botany. At first, this is a bit disconcerting, as the alternating chapters have little to do with each other. It is like reading two books at once, with their chapters intermingled. In addition, there seems to be very little coherence among the chapters about either subject.

But somehow, the scheme seems to work. The chapters about Jahren's life are interesting, while those about botany are fascinating.

Hope Jahren did not have it easy growing up. Her academic career was difficult, to say the least. She goes into some detail about how the scientific establishment disregarded her because she was new to the field and her research tended to oppose the current thinking. But more than that, the establishment disregarded her because of sexism. She was a woman, and that was just about unheard of. It was pathetic when the administrator banned her from entering her own lab building when she was pregnant; she was probably the first--and maybe the last--pregnant woman ever to enter the lab building at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The book is also about a remarkable friendship between Jahren and her lab partner and best friend, Bill. They are like fraternal brother and sister. The depth of their friendship seems limitless. Bill's crazy sense of humor, his out-of-the-ballpark witticisms, and their deep caring for each other is simply remarkable. It is a testament to both of them, as Bill has some deep problems that are not quite asserted, while Jahren is manic depressive.

This book deals with all the problems of a young woman who becomes an academic scientist. It describes the difficulties in getting research grants, and for some reason, the story ignores Jahren's scientific triumphs. I am not sure why; perhaps it is modesty. Jahren and Bill put in incredibly long hours, so it is not like they were given anything for free. Their academic awards were definitely earned. But you won't read about these things in the book; you need to look outside the book to learn about their true scientific accomplishments. This seems to be the biggest question I have after reading this book; what exactly were their discoveries, and why is the scientific acclaim not even hinted at in the book?
Profile Image for Brina.
933 reviews4 followers
July 29, 2020
True confession. I never wanted to read Lab Girl when it first came out because I am phobic about needles and by word association I think of triage when the word lab comes up. Growing up, I visited chemistry labs on many occasions because my dad worked at a pharmaceutical company for his entire career. I grew up fascinated with chemistry sets- making volcanoes out of kitchen products, looking under a microscope, and later when I advanced to high school chemistry classes, identifying esters and their smells and equations. I never thought of lab girl taking place in a chemistry or biology lab because, sadly, renown female scientists are still a rarity. For a bonus word in my summer scrabble challenge, I drew the word “hop” and Lab Girl was the first book to come up when I typed “hop” into my search. When I saw that this best selling memoir was about plants, and not the medicine (for the most part), I decided to read about a decorated female scientist.

Hope Jahren grew up in rural Minnesota, the youngest child and only daughter in her family. Among her fondest memories were following her father to his chemistry lab, where he taught at a community college. It was her responsibility to prep equipment before class and, if she was lucky, to run a few experiments for herself. When it was time for college, Hope attended the University of Minnesota, first as a literature major, but then switched to paleo-biology. Although she can quote Dickens and Beckett from memory, Hope realized that her place was in a science lab. In addition to her memories of attending her father’s chemistry classes, Hope was drawn to the study of genetics and of plants, specifically the tree that grew outside of her family’s home. After graduating from Minnesota, she moved cross country to Berkeley to peruse a PhD in paleobotany, the field that she felt she was born to study.

Jahren must be a prolific teacher in the classroom because she makes the study of plants sound fascinating. She has spent her career charting carbon isotopes of plants all over the world to find patterns in growth in order for us to save the world from itself. Jahren’s research has taken her from Georgia Tech to John’s Hopkins to the University of Hawaii and now to Oslo, Norway. Since being a graduate instructor at Berkeley, Jahren has been assisted by her counterpart, or, in her words, soul mate, Bill Hagopian. An Armenian who spent most of his adolescence living in a hole in his parents’ backyard, Bill was born to study paleobotany. While not the renown scientist that Hope is, Bill can ably run a lab at all hours of the night, dissemble fancy equipment and transport it cross country, and relate to students in a way that Hope sometimes cannot. The two make up the perfect team of yin and yang and the memories that focus on Bill are among the most humorous of the book. I would read his memoir too, but, Hope points out, she is the one who takes copious notes and writes, whereas he is her partner and foil in research, in essence a soul mate.

Jahren adeptly balances her personal and professional life during the course of the memoir. Readers go from hearing humorous stories about a class field trip to the Monkey Jungle in Miami leading to the Jahren Lab’s nickname to being fascinated by knowing that a hackberry seed is made out of opal. With my birthstone being opal, I was captivated by this section. Hope and Bill have charted trees along the Mississippi and seen why they don’t sweat in the summer whereas people do. They have spent summers in the Canadian Arctic measuring the age of glaciers and carbon dating, and have researched variations of plant life in southwestern Ireland. Although she has done more in her professional life than most, Jahren was not taken seriously by the old boys network until she started a family. It was at that point that she was not viewed as complete threat and began to earn grants, having earned at this point three Fulbright grants over the course of her career. The Monkey Jungle might be low budget and subsist on snickers bars and twenty four hour shifts, but it is a well oiled machine that studied the world of plants and noted how they are vital to maintain the earth.

I regret waiting as long as I have to read Lab Girl. In Hope Jahren I have found a kindred spirit who grew up with a scientific minded father and literature loving mother. Today she is an example of a well balanced renaissance woman, continuing her research at the University of Oslo, Norway, Bill continuing their partnership after all these years. This spring Jahren has come out with a second book about where we go from here to preserve plant life to sustain the planet. Needless to say, I will not be waiting as long to read this one as I now know that Hope Jahren studies plants, not medicine.

🧪🔬 4+ 👩‍🔬 stars
Profile Image for Petra.
1,147 reviews16 followers
December 30, 2016
A strange book, for sure. There's mention of Hope's schooling, her family, her friendship with Bill over 20+ years, her husband, her son, some interesting details of plants and trees, her labs.....but nothing about her work, research, lectures, scientific presentations, etc. Although this is a memoir of her working life, there's very little of her work included. For example, we're told in detail of a multi-day car trip to a conference....but not a word about the talk she gave at the conference or how it was accepted by her peers.
I enjoyed the short chapters on plants and trees. I found these very interesting and wish there had been more on this.
I wasn't as interested in her personal life. Hope comes across as rather whiny and woeful at times. However, the stories of her son and husband are touching. Her love for them comes through the pages.
All in all, an okay read but not very engaging most of the time.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews926 followers
October 23, 2018
I enjoyed Hope Jahren's Lab Girl. Still, I wanted to like it more than I did. Jahren's memoir follows her pursuits of science along with all the achievements and disappointments. Another engaging aspect of the book is the complex relationship Jahren forms with a fellow student (now her lab manager), Bill. That said, I really wanted to hear more about the science, about her actual discoveries rather than how she happened to move from this to that university. Perhaps I went into reading this with the wrong set of expectations. I kept wondering when she was going to get to the science. It did come, but that wasn't the point of the book.
Profile Image for Donia.
1,082 reviews
October 14, 2016
I grew up spending my free time in my fathers lab and later I was married to a scientist. We celebrated together with deep appreciation and wonder when he purchased his first mass spectrometer. Our children grew up wandering about his lab, helping out during summer time breaks. We have a tremendous love and appreciation of the outdoors, camping, travelling, hiking, collecting.

Ah, I thought, here is the perfect book for me to read!

Though I consider myself to be a broad minded intellect I can't understand what people see in this monotonous bio. I hung in there page after page, chapter after chapter hoping it would get better. It never did.
Profile Image for Mara.
401 reviews282 followers
June 20, 2016
This is less a review than it is a caveat: My experience of “reading” the book was really more of a two star affair— however, I listened to it, and feel pretty confident that I would have enjoyed it more in the written word. The author reads the book herself, and during the parts that are supposed to be sad, she's reading in one of those choked-up/half-crying voices which is beyond annoying. But, what with lady scientist solidarity and such, I'm rounding up.
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews335 followers
December 7, 2016
4 stars

Didn't expect to like this, despite the handful of glowing reviews from my friends. (For some reason I thought this was going to be a plant-centric H is For Hawk, which was okay, but not a book I'd care to revisit.) Hope Jahren's lovely affirmation to the scientific world, Lab Girl, is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in plants and trees and flora of all types. How she took botanist vignettes (e.g. plants that sweat, hackberry husks made of opal, the South's kudzu infestation, Arctic soil) and interwove them into her own life of never-ending scientific inquiry is truly genius. (Equally genius is her ability to make dummies like me care about botany and soil). The co-star, her trusty companion and comedic foil, Bill, all but steals the show. I never really understood the pains real life science trailblazers like Ms.Jehren go through to get answers (like getting funding for snoozy-sounding, unglamorous lab trials, or battling manic depression, or contending with sexism in a male-dominated pursuit).

After two tornadic events in '09 and '11 here in NE Alabama, I never wanted anything to do with trees again; sure as heck didn't want to read a book about them. Ms
(er, Dr.) Jahren, though, through her humorous and informative memoir, has given me a newfound appreciation for our life-giving (and alarmingly depleted) arboreal neighbors. (It's not their fault they topple onto houses and drive manic scientists crazy). Even if you have no interest in trees and other flora, there's plenty of other topics here to please most everyone. (Even a couple of can't-miss funny/scary road trips, one with butt-naked monkeys.) Recommended.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,866 reviews295 followers
February 10, 2023
Clue 1. Happy, exuberant state.
Clue 2. Read 290 pages in one sitting.
Clue 3. Desire to tell everyone about book.
Clue 4. No interest in picking up another book until euphoria subsides.


Yes, I read a fabulous book today. Hope Jahren combines the stories of her life with alternating and connected stories of the plant world to create a brilliant book. Five stars.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,459 followers
December 18, 2016
The book is not bad, it is OK. It spreads itself thin.

It is an autobiography of one specific woman, a woman both ordinary and exceptional. The book depicts the life of a female botanical research scientist at the turn of the 21st century, a central issue being the difficulty in attaining adequate research grants to survive on. It is about friendship. It is about choosing where one's main interests lie - family or job. What I think it does best is draw the author's fervent passion for plants, research and ecology. She loves what she does almost to the point where it destroys her. It only touches upon the latest research on trees.

The book begins by showing how the author’s Norwegian descent and relationship with her parents led her toward a career in research science. The reader watches her emotional involvement, sense of responsibility and compulsion to do a good job grow as she through scholarships and hard work gets an education. In May 1996she got her Doctorate at University of California Berkeley and began teaching as well as pursuing independent research in paleobiology.

We then follow her for another twenty years, twenty years of struggles to get money, recognition and lab facilities. It is the struggle rather than her particular scientific goals that are focused upon. For example, she travels to San Francisco to give a talk at a conference. We are given a lengthy description of the horrendous trip, rather than what she spoke about! We are told in detail how the four traveling practically killed themselves in a car accident, of their miserable hotel rooms and Hope’s reliance upon her work associate, Bill. This friendship runs straight through the entire book. Any reader of this book will be gripped by the importance of research work to Hope. However, it is not her scientific results per se that is the central focus. The research work that is detailed is more often about lab techniques or sterility procedures or the proper statistical means of accounting data rather than a detailed explanation of her discoveries in plant science. These are merely touched upon. Neither does one get a complete coverage of all that she has done in these twenty years. Near the end of the book she travels with Bill to Ireland; we are told then that she had been to Ireland many times before!

This book contains little about contemporary plant research. It is instead about one researcher’s struggles.

The author reads her own book, and she does it very well. You hear her engagement. You hear her frustration. Her emotions come through very, very well. At emotional crises her voice trembles. However there are parts where she is more detached, in the epilog and the endnote for example, which drag on f-o-r-e-v-e-r! I suppose here the main fault is not the narration, but rather a more rigorous editing would have helped.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,735 reviews477 followers
December 11, 2016
Hope Jahren's love of science comes through loud and clear in her memoir. She grew up in a rural Minnesota home where there was not much family interaction. The highlight of her day as a child was spending the afternoon in her father's science lab at the local community college. Jahren is presently a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii. Her memoir chronicles her personal history and the challenges of running her own laboratory. It also contains short chapters giving fascinating information about plants.

Her lab manager, Bill, has been working with Jahren for twenty years, going with her as she changed jobs. He's eccentric, loyal, hard-working, brilliant, and Jahren's best friend. His quirky sense of humor always comes through, even in the worst of times. It's not easy being a woman running a laboratory in departments that seem to be men's clubs. Even though she works long hours in the lab, Jahren feels that procuring grant money is the hardest part of the job.

Jahren has a passion for understanding how plants and the soil work together. Some of her work has been in paleobiology, researching the layers of soil in the Arctic. Other projects involved researching live plants. The chapters on plants are written at a level where most readers will pick up lots of interesting information, but not so technical that it's difficult to understand.

Jahren also has a love of literature, and her memoir is not written like a dry science text. She writes beautifully about how she looks at nature with awe. Her emotions come through as she tells us about her challenges with her bipolar condition, finding love with her husband Clint, and the joy of motherhood. She's not afraid to poke fun at herself and Bill, and shared humorous events from some unconventional field trips. I found her memoir to be entertaining as well as informative. 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Joseph.
697 reviews94 followers
April 14, 2016
Full disclosure: I knew Hope in high school, lost touch after graduation and reconnected 20+ years later (see? it's possible for good to come of Facebook!), so I'm not going to even pretend to be objective.

But if were to pretend, I might point out that this book is about trees and science and love and sheer bloodymindedness and may or may not have made me cry.
Profile Image for Carolyn (on vacation).
2,245 reviews642 followers
May 4, 2018
Hope Jahren's memoir is a fascinating insight into what it takes to be a successful research scientist in America today. She writes of the struggle to establish herself in a male-dominated world and the constant fight for recognition of ideas that don't fit in with the conventional view. She also touches on her struggle with bipolar disease and it's effect on her work, her life and motherhood. She describes the constant fight for funding and making do on a shoe-string, which will resonate with research scientists all over the world. Fortunately she has a passion for her work in paleobiology and through working extraordinary hours, she does eventually win through and become recognised and rewarded with awards and a tenured position, but even then she must worry about how to keep her lab funded.

Throughout the book there are chapters on trees where she explains in fascinating detail what it is they need to grow and thrive. I learnt a lot about how they interconnect with each other above and below ground and will never look at trees the same way again. I also enjoyed her tales of field trips with her students, piling them into a minibus with camping supplies and a cooler box of food to go and dig pits and collect specimens in wild locations. The star of her book is undoubtably Bill, her loyal assistant and lab manager who moved several times with her to set up new labs all over the country. He is a magician in the lab, fixing and adapting equipment and in the early days survived on a meagre salary for his love of the job. Their platonic relationship and shared passion for their work has obviously been central to Hope's success and life and his encouragement has helped to buoy her up in the difficult times. Thoughtful and well written, this is a different and interesting memoir.
Profile Image for Caroline.
506 reviews585 followers
April 1, 2018
This book is both wonderful and idiosyncratic; I found it full of surprises. It's a mixture of various aspects of Hope Jahren's life. In different parts it is the author's life story, a description of a deep and unusual friendship, the trials of being an academic and researcher, and a monument of her devotion to ecology and botany. Hope Jahren is an unusual person, overflowing with warmth, wit and originality. Her story makes for a fascinating and delightful read.

I am going to finish this by simply giving two extracts from her book. These focus on her passion and lyricism when writing about nature, but her writing about her life in other spheres is equally gripping.

A highly recommended read....
Profile Image for Monica.
620 reviews631 followers
September 29, 2019
The title evokes a vision of some woman's whacky science adventures as a lab assistant. The book blurb tells us that Hope Jahren is a scientist who has opened 3 labs blah blah blah relationships. The results for me were a little unexpected but overall positive. A combination of eccentricity, obsession and real friendship. Jahren has written primarily a memoir interspersed with some science-y anecdotes about plant life. It was also a love letter to her coworker and lifelong companion.

Jahren starts at her childhood. She idolized her father a science teacher and yearns for a good relationship with her emotionally unavailable mother who loved literature and writing. Jahren clearly has a talent in both areas. While in graduate school she meets undergraduate Bill, a bit of a recluse and misfit. They click and the rest of the book revolves around some of their struggles and triumphs. Clearly Jahren attributes her successes as directly linked to Bill. The relationship with Bill is spelled out at length in the book and in my view is one of the most compelling and convincing portrayals of true friendship. It is in the details of this relationship that the book shines. The book also provided a look into the world of science in academia and what is expected of scientists. What it means to open labs and how much responsibility really is put on the shoulders of the scientists. Funding not only the lab but it's employees. Building the lab, acquiring resources and equipment, conducting research and teaching courses. Oh and you must show progress or profits, be published in scientific journals etc. Publish or perish and that's after convincing some benefactor that you are worth funding. It's more than a little unsettling. I am only now beginning to realize what it means when we talk about higher education and the measurements of worthiness and success and its connections to what is being taught. Jahren eventually finds love and marriage with another professor. It's through her pregnancy that she discusses her crippling bipolar issues. The book ends positively with Jahren et al, living in Hawaii with a long term contract (by their standards…3 years) and life on an upward trajectory.

I liked this memoir very much. It felt very intimate and Jahren revealed a lot about her own struggles and her relationship with Bill. They have a very lovely, meaningful, relationship. It appears to be a mutual affection. The tales were fascinating and the information about plants was just enough to make me want to learn more. But there is a lot missing. Jahren's husband (Clint) and son are mentioned towards the end. Jahren scratches the surface of her mental illness, and barely touches on Bill's struggles with migraines and his personal history is very minorly detailed. He is quirky but otherwise, not a blemish on him in this memoir. Also, it appears that Jahren is very modest and humble. She is a renowned scientist who has had lots of success that she does not address in the book. Jahren is by her own admission, a bit of a unicorn. She's a female scientist. The implication was that it's a man's world, yet the book didn't much touch upon the struggles she endured as a female. I also get the impression (though not expressly stated) that academia is a viper pit. We get only a small taste of the steel spine, determination, perseverance and possible callousness and indifference likely needed to survive in that environment. As I said there were lots of untold stories that would have helped form a complete picture. Overall this was an interesting read. I should mention that I found Jahren's writing to be very engaging. Again, not at all expected. My impression is that Jahren (and Bill) are amazing people. And I want to follow her advice and plant a tree. Watch it grow. Save the earth.

4 Stars

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