Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

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

25733983I could have been a lab girl. Except that I imagined my ‘lab’ would be the ocean. But after reading Lab Girl, I’m not so sure I would have been cut out for it. The amount of time, energy and dedication that has gone into Jahren’s career as a scientist is amazing and inspiring. And, even if you have never come anywhere close to being a lab girl (or boy) yourself, this book is worth reading.

Lab Girl illustrates what it takes to get to where Hope Jahren is today*, but there is also a lot more to it. She tells us about her lab partner, Bill, their unique relationship, and many of their adventures together. She talks about her bipolar disorder. She tells us stories about her experiments and what they mean to her. And she makes us curious about things we never knew we were curious about.

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.

I think my favourite parts of the book are the alternating chapters in which she describes in detail how trees and other plants work. The book was not a quick read for me, because these sections had me slowing right down so that I wouldn’t miss anything, underlining like mad so that I could go back and remind myself of it all later. The placement of these chapters within the context of her own story, and the skillful way she writes about them, prevent them from being merely a biology lesson; instead they become a meditation on life.

People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science, because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.

In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

These plants know that when your world is changing rapidly, it is important to have identified the one thing that you can always count on.

No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root..

The first real leaf is a new idea…

Hope and Bill have a unique relationship. He stuck with her through her whole messy career – getting started, being desperate for money and living off of crap for food and no where to live. This book is as much for him and about him as it is about Hope. She talks about the fun times they’ve had together over the years; road trips, research all over the globe, moving labs across the country, and living in a run-down camper van that barely works. Bill’s had a big role to play in this book and had some funny lines, but this one takes the cake (experimenting with moss, writing in his notebook):

Upon 20x magnification the fronds resemble Oscar the Grouch’s pubic hair.

Jahren also addresses bipolar disorder in this book. She dedicates a chapter to how bipolar disorder feels to her. The first paragraph gives you a good idea of how vividly she writes about it.

Full blown mania lets you see the other side of death. Its onset is profoundly visceral and unexpected, no matter how many times you’ve been through it. It is your body that first senses the urgency of a new world about to bloom. Your vertebrae seem to detach from one another and you elongate as if towards the sun’s light. You can’t hear above the sloshing roar of blood pushed through your head by some impossible sustained orgasm within your beating heart. For the next twenty-four, forty-eight, seventy-two hours you will have to yell to hear yourself over this whooshing. Nothing, nothing can be loud enough or bright enough or move fast enough. The world appears as if through a fish-eye lens; your view is fuzzy with sparkling edges. You have received a grand systemic injection of Novocain and your entire body tingles briefly before it becomes flaccidly foreign and unreal. Your raised arms are the fleshy petal of a magnificent lily bursting into flower. It deeply dawns on you that this new world about to bloom is you.

And it goes on… impossibly perfect. Pick it up just for this chapter alone (chapter 9).

29630925Jahren’s dedication to her job and her life is inspiring, but in addition to that, her writing is wonderful, engaging, warm, and funny. She has a way with words, whether she is talking about nature, experiments, her love of science, the challenges of being a female scientist, Bill’s unfailing loyalty, love, bipolar disorder, her family, or giving birth to her son. I underlined so many passages in this book, mostly to do with the way nature works and why it’s so amazing. I’ve read about plants a lot in the past, but never in such a compelling and meaningful way; a way that shows how all living things are connected; a way that makes me want to learn more. I wish I could share them all with you, but since I can’t, I urge you to read the book yourself. Hope Jahren is smitten with nature and with life, and it’s contagious.


*Jahren has received three Fulbright Awards: in 1992 for geology work conducted in Norway, in 2003 for environmental science work conducted in Denmark, and in 2010 for arctic science work conducted in Norway. In 2001, Jahren won the Donath Medal, awarded by the Geological Society of America. In 2005, she was awarded the Macelwane Medal, becoming the first woman and fourth scientist overall to win both the Macelwane Medal and the Donath Medal. Jahren was profiled by Popular Science magazine in 2006 as one of its “Brilliant 10” scientists. She was a 2013 Leopold Fellow at Stanford University‘s Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. In 2016, Time Magazine named her one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People.Wikipedia

Further Reading:

Hope Jahren’s blog

Hope Jahren’s Laboratory

Doing Dewey’s review of Lab Girl

Joy Isabella’s review of Lab Girl

*Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review! All the quotes in this review are from an Uncorrected Proof.


45 thoughts on “Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

    • Naomi says:

      Those were my favourite parts of the book. I could have gone on and on about only that, but I figured most people would want a broader overview. 🙂

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m reading this at the moment! I think I’m about 36% of the way through. I’m enjoying it, though perhaps not as much as I would if I’d spent more time in a lab recently — it’s been since high school for me. My favorite chapter so far was the one where she was working in the hospital pharmacy and writing a paper about the word “heart” as used in David Copperfield. I haven’t gotten to anything about her bipolar disorder yet, so now you’ve got me intrigued. This has been an interesting one to read alongside The Signature of All Things.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! Because there’s moss in it, too – later, nearer the end!
      I also loved her literary references, Dickens being a popular one for her, but there are also a few others, I think.
      I think I liked the book the more I got into it, and by the end I was sad that it was over.

  2. susanosborne55 says:

    Great review, Naomi. Your enthusiasm fizzes off the page! Interesting to see Rebecca’s mention of The Signature of All Things which I really enjoyed. Very much looking forward to reading the book.

    • Naomi says:

      I can see why it would be interesting to read the two books at the same time – female scientists, then and now. Thankfully, there has been some improvements since then.

  3. Elle says:

    I really wanted to get this in proof, but didn’t ask in time and now have too much stuff this month to take it on. I’m glad I read this review, though: Jahren seems like a wonderfully *wondrous* guide.

    • Naomi says:

      She made me wish that I could be inside her head for a little while just to see what it was like – she’s brilliant.

  4. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I was lucky enough to win a copy of this in Doing Dewey’s giveaway. I’m not a lab girl by any stretch of the imagination, but after reading your review, I am so looking forward to reading it. Your enthusiasm for the book really shows. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, you were the lucky winner! It was a good one to win, in my opinion. 🙂
      I’m glad it’s my enthusiasm that shows and not my frustration at trying to somehow coherently say everything I wanted to say without being too long-winded. There was so much to talk about in this one!
      I hope you enjoy it!

  5. FictionFan says:

    Sounds like a fascinating one and I love your enthusiasm for it! I always enjoy reading about science though I’m not scientifically minded at all. I so admire people who work in science though – they always seem so dedicated and committed.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! Dedicated and committed and focused (I don’t think I could ever stay so focused) and curious and energetic and determined and sleepless. 🙂
      The whole time I was reading it I imagined her eyes were always sparkling.

  6. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I didn’t realize she also has/writes about bipolar disorder, but that makes me even more eager to pick up Lab Girl. It sounds fascinating, and I’ve seen several women who work in the sciences say that Jahren’s experiences rang very true to them. So yay!

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t know about the bipolar stuff either until I was reading it. By the time I got to it, though, I wasn’t surprised – it jived with the way she was living at times. So much energy, so little sleep. But the way she writes about it made me feel like I really ‘got’ it.

  7. Ioana @ booksreenchanted says:

    Absolutely stunning description of a manic episode – this and the rest of the portions you quote are absolutely beautiful. Would also be very interested to learn more about a life of science (that I also passed on after undergrad), especially from the pov of a woman. So, this is going on my endless TBR… Great review, thank you!

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Ioana! I was also bowled over by the chapter on bipolar disorder – I don’t have it myself, but I feel as though I totally get it now. (even though I probably still don’t) 🙂
      If you have any interest in science at all then you will probably like this. The pov of a woman scientist was especially interesting!

  8. Read Diverse Books says:

    I love plants too! I love them so much that they’re the majority of the food I eat. 🙂

    I have read a couple of pop science books on biology and botany and enjoyed them, but this seems different, a lot more comprehensive and insightful. Hope Jahren seems like a fascinating person full of ambition and love for our world’s wonders. I like her style.

    • Naomi says:

      It is different, and I’m not sure I was able to explain it well enough. She talk about plants in a way that connects them to us and to everything else. She makes us see how truly amazing they are, even when we already thought they were amazing. If that makes any sense. 🙂

  9. ebookclassics says:

    I was interested in this book after Katie from Doing Dewey recommended it, but I’m a bit on the fence about how in-depth the science part is in the book. It reminds me of Moby Dick and all of the historical and scientific information about whales. Yet I loved Moby Dick, so maybe I will love this book too ….? The author’s struggle with bipolar disorder adds another dimension as well.

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t think there would be anything science-y that you wouldn’t understand. She talks more about the generalities than the specifics. And, when she gets into detail about the plants, she does it in a way that anyone would understand. And it’s all weaved in with her personal life stories (like her experience with bipolar disorder, and her adventures with Bill).

  10. Carolyn O says:

    I’m so glad you loved this—and what a great review (loved the quotations you chose)! I have it on hold at the library and now I can’t wait for it to come in!

  11. Cecilia says:

    This sounds like a wonderful memoir! I never appreciated science as a girl but I definitely do now as an adult and as the mother of a boy who loves science. I also like the mental illness aspect of the book. Great review, Naomi!

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Cecilia! I really think you would like this one, because of the way it ties everything together; plants + science + friendship + mental illness + hard work + mistakes + love + family + a few more things that I can’t think of right now = life. 🙂

  12. JacquiWine says:

    It does sound interesting, Naomi – kudos to you for such an engaged and enthusiastic review. I did some work in the bipolar area several years ago – it’s a fascinating topic.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m glad my review came off okay. I found this one hard to write about – it was hard to convey how wonderfully she ties so many things together seemingly effortlessly.
      You might interested in reading that chapter 9 to see if it rings true based on what you know!

  13. Marisa@TheDailyDosage says:

    I was almost a Lab Girl too! I was a Bio major in college and dreamed of working with marine or land animals but the thought of spending so much time in a lab doing research for others and not on the field made me switch majors. I still have this on my holds list at the library and can’t wait to read it, especially now after your review.

    • Naomi says:

      So similar to me! I have a science degree in bio, and thought about also getting one in marine bio at a different university (the undergrad university I went to didn’t specialize in marine bio, but I took all the marine courses that it did offer). I even worked in a lab at a natural history museum for a while. But, in the end, the lab life was not for me either. 🙂 I’m pretty sure I made the right decision. Let me know what you think after you read the book!

    • Naomi says:

      Yay! And, it’s a memoir, so it’s just your thing. I’ll be very curious to hear what you think if you decide to read it!

  14. Bina says:

    This book sounds wonderful, love how she relates people and nature to each other and also talks about her struggle with mental illness. Glad to see her succeed! Also, both covers look so amazing 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I also love the covers!
      Hope Jahren just sounds like the kind of person that can’t help but bring positivity into everything she does. The world needs more of her!

  15. Grab the Lapels says:

    I heard this lady on NPR and immediately wanted to read this book, but I’ve promised myself that I’m going to finish the dozen reviewer copies I have before I read other books. In the interview, she talked about scientists who will contact her to explain her science isn’t 100% right, but she explained that she very carefully kept in mind and audience interested in science but not scientists. The book would be too inaccessible if she was all science. I didn’t hear anything about this man or love in the interview!!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s interesting that she didn’t talk about Bill… he’s her main man in the book (strictly platonic , though, which is kind of refreshing).
      I’m glad to hear that she sounds just as contagious in an interview as she does in her book. 🙂

  16. The Cue Card says:

    Nice review. I have a copy of this one. & plan to get to it soon. Yes, yes & yes. Look forward to it!

  17. DoingDewey says:

    Yay! Wonderful review. I loved hearing you put into words so much of what I loved about this book. I’m so glad that you picked it up and enjoyed it 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks! And, I felt the same way about your review. 🙂
      I still feel like it’s hard to explain just what’s so good about it. I was so impressed!

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