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Behind the Scenes, Between the Lines

Carolyn Beans

LAB GIRL. Hope Jahren. x + 294 pp. Knopf, 2015. $26.95.

Between the lines of every scientific manuscript there’s a story. One of my own papers, for example, reports that I marked 550 native jewelweed plants at the start of the study and tracked the survival and growth of 394 of them as they competed with an invasive species. I don’t discuss the fate of the remaining 156 plants, mown down by a neighbor who ignored pink tape, caution flags, and a property line. Nor do I mention the pair of dogs that burst through their electric fence to attack me every time I measured the plants that remained.

Hope Jahren, a geobiologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, was not satisfied presenting only the pieces of her story that fit within the constraints of a scientific manuscript. In the first chapter of her new memoir, Lab Girl, she explains that “working in a lab for 20 years has left me with two stories: the one that I have to write, and the one that I want to.”

So begins Jahren’s behind-the-scenes tour of science. We join her for misadventures and triumphs as she sets up three labs and conducts research in the Canadian Arctic, Ireland, Hawaii, and across the continental United States. The purview of a geobiologist includes everything from soil science and geology to atmospheric science and botany. Jahren is game for all of it—especially the botany. With plants as her focus, she pursues vast and varied questions. What was the Arctic’s climate like 45 million years ago? How much nutrition can we expect sweet potatoes of the future to provide? Throughout her memoir, Jahren discusses these far-flung concepts engagingly, immersing the reader in scientific detail that is both accurate and accessible. She deftly explains how x-ray diffraction works, how bacteria can invade via a patient’s IV, how a deep hole can provide clues about the climate millions of years ago.

Beyond tales of the research itself, she shares her own experiences of growing into a scientist: a childhood spent exploring her father’s laboratory in a community college in rural Minnesota; her first lab job, filling IV bags in a hospital basement; the first time she discovers something no one else had ever known. As Jahren explains to her young son, “It takes a long time to turn into what you’re supposed to be.”

Like many female scientists, Jahren discovers that pervasive sexism makes becoming what she is supposed to be that much more challenging. As a graduate student, she runs an experiment at midnight to avoid a male postdoc who seemed “particularly menacing toward the odd female who stumbled into his orbit.” At eight months pregnant, as a professor at Johns Hopkins University, Jahren is forbidden from entering her own lab, ostensibly for liability reasons, but possibly because the head of her department didn’t like the sight of a pregnant woman. She was well aware that her pregnancy was an anomaly in her department, and she describes her concerns about it at the time: “I am close to being the first and only woman ever awarded tenure in this hundred-year-old ivy-draped department . . . and I instinctively know that I should hide any weakness that accompanies my pregnant state.” But after she nearly faints in front of her department head after standing up too fast (she’d long had low blood pressure), he decides that she will not be allowed to return to her own lab until after her baby’s birth. Worse yet, he delivers this new rule to Jahren’s husband, another professor, instead of to Jahren herself. Tellingly, during the episode itself her department head watches her slump into her chair, and then he “looks around in puzzlement.” Instead of checking on her, as one might expect of a colleague, he wordlessly “goes into his office and closes the door.”

Jahren doesn’t seem to dwell for long, either in her life or in her book, on the sexist acts directed at her. She promptly returns her focus to research. But the pointed examples of sexual harassment she shares illustrate with painful clarity just how draining it is for a female scientist to navigate a sexist terrain—sapping energy and diverting focus that she could otherwise direct to her science.

Perhaps because she had never seen a female scientist in her youth, Jahren began her undergraduate studies as a literature major. Although she quickly switched fields, the knowledge and skills she gained from her English classes, as well as from reading with her lit-major mother, are evident in her beautifully crafted prose and in the literary references woven throughout the memoir. Jahren connects her own experiences to the works of Charles Dickens, e. e. cummings, and Harper Lee—often humorously—with the same ease that she describes leaf venation. This mingling of the literary and the scientific highlights their connections, as well as the humanity underlying both disciplines.

The memoir interleaves the personal and professional, with chapters about Jahren’s experiences typically alternating with ones on plant physiology. Fascinating plant facts do the double work of opening avenues for deeper reflection. A section on seed establishment leads to a description of Jahren’s beginnings as a scientist. A segment about plant reproduction—where she writes, “Successful plant sex may be rare, but when it does happen it triggers a supernova of new possibilities”—precedes the story of how she met her husband.

Jahren peoples her memoir with a cast of vividly described characters. Bill Hagopian, her longtime lab manager and friend, is the most richly developed. The two meet as students at the University of California, Berkeley. Jahren, a graduate student, convinces her advisor to hire Hagopian, an undergraduate, and from then on their stories become intertwined. He is a quirky guy, a loyal friend, and a loner who as a teenager had lived for several years in an underground fort. He is also a brilliant scientist.

In telling Hagopian’s story, Jahren pays tribute to some of the great, unsung heroes of science: the professional lab managers and techs. These individuals dedicate their lives to science but choose to remain in supporting roles. Without them, many successful labs would not function. Yet their livelihoods are often at the mercy of the next grant cycle. Jahren writes, “It is maddening to me that the best and hardest-working scientist I’ve ever known has no long-term job security, and that this is mostly my fault.” She is being hard on herself here, as unforgiving funding systems that have become the norm for university research constrain her efforts to provide job security for those working in her lab. “As research scientists,” she admits, “we will never, ever be secure.”

Scrutinizing her own accountability in her friend’s job situation is typical of Jahren’s breathtakingly honest portrayal of herself. She is unafraid to depict herself unflatteringly. She admits, for example, to petty workplace hoarding, stealing a drill from another lab, even though she already had five of them and plenty of grant money to buy more. Moving at times into more emotionally fraught territory, she describes how her own mother’s lack of affection has left her yearning for a mother figure. She writes, “I am sick to death of this wound that will not close; of how my babyish heart mistakes any simple kindness from a woman for a breadcrumb trail leading to the soft love of a mother or the fond approval of a grandmother.”

Most affectingly, she shares her struggle with bipolar disorder in gorgeous, harrowing prose. She resists approaching the condition as a diagnostic label, instead narrating its intermittent but all-encompassing episodes in unstinting detail, from moments when “this great cosmic fire hose bathes you in epiphanies” to the crushing aftermath in which “you wake to a gray sadness that mutes you into a silent, weeping numbness.” As painful as these recollections must be, she is committed to presenting her experience in full, promising the reader that as she narrates the years before her diagnosis and treatment she’ll “keep describing how the world spins when mania is as strong and ever-present as gravity.” Jahren’s memoir presents readers with a fully human scientist who is both flawed and gifted, who struggles but whose dedication to her work encourages her to persist.

Jahren is less successful when she extends this humanizing impulse to the plant world, frequently anthropomorphizing the flora she describes. Some cases are mild (“A seed knows how to wait”), while others are egregious (“Probably within just the last 10 million years, a plant had a new idea, and instead of spreading its leaf out, it shaped it into a spine”). At best, personifying the plants she studies may help draw in some readers, encouraging them to care about subjects they might never have considered. At worst, the technique is distracting and undercuts the solid—and fascinating—scientific details she presents elsewhere. In the end, it suggests missed opportunities to share some truly amazing science. Is it no less fascinating to consider, for example, that evolution could shape a leaf into a spine than that a plant could come up with the idea to do so?

Still, Jahren’s anthropomorphic tendency isn’t just a poetic flourish. She shares much in common with Thoreau, who began his gardening experiment by asking, “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” Jahren writes that she “tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it.” Again and again she puts herself in a plant’s place, imagining plants caring for one another, wishing for things, and feeling surprise and companionship. She recognizes that many will find her perspective unscientific. But with three Fulbright awards, two Young Investigator Medals, dozens of publications, and the fully constructed Stable Isotope Geobiology Laboratories under her belt, it’s hard to argue that her unique approach to scientific research hasn’t been productive.

At its core, Lab Girl is a book about seeing—with the eyes, but also the hands and the heart. Jahren begins her memoir with this quote from Helen Keller: “The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.” She spends the rest of the book teaching us that if we just look closely enough, we can see the opal lattice on a hackberry seed, the depths of loyalty in our closest friends, the wonder in a single leaf, and what we ourselves are supposed to become.

Carolyn Beans is a DC-based science writer specializing in ecology, evolution, and biomedicine. She received her PhD in biology from the University of Virginia in 2014. Her research focused on the ecological and evolutionary effects of an invasive plant on a closely related native species. You can find her on Twitter: @carolynmbeans.

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