Book Club – Lab Girl

We recently read Lab Girl, the nationally bestselling memoir by Hope Jahren, PhD. Dr. Jahren is a Professor at the University of Hawai’i Manoa where she runs a Geobiology Laboratory. She also blogs about interactions between women and men in academia at https://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com. The book is mostly about her life and career path, but it also weaves in interesting vignettes about plant life that appear as metaphors related to aspects of her experiences.

Lab Girl image

What was the most relatable part of the story for you?

fishprint: I read this book, in part, to find a relatable female scientist. I probably wouldn’t have admitted this at the time, but I like her writing, I love her Twitter presence, and I really wanted to relate to her. So, I spent the first half of the book hating it. Until finally I recognized I’d brought all these expectations to the book. Then I could let all that go and read it.  Do not read this book if you want a relatable female scientist role model to compare yourself to. Read this book for a well written, complicated personal story. You may relate more to the grad student who quits, “sneering on her way out that she didn’t want a life like mine”, but that’s OK. No one, probably not even that student, was really being asked to have a life like Jahren’s. But the proximity of the book (and worse if you work for her, I imagine) makes you compare and question.

peírama: One thing the book relies on and yet only briefly touches on directly is how Jahren’s relationship with Bill is important to her success in science. There are the straightforward ways, that he works for almost nothing yet works harder than most employees would and that he is a consistent presence in her lab from before she even starts her lab throughout her career (a trait which can make someone invaluable if they are competent, which Bill seems more than). Then there is the personal aspect of it. As Jahren readily admits, doing science is hard. There are setbacks from the natural world and from the world of people. Having someone interested in the same things as you, thinking about the same questions as you, who you get along with, who is there to support you when things get tough, makes things so much easier. I think the way our scientific society is set up to put people out on their own without a built in network and constantly ripping scientists away from people they know is counterproductive. Jahren lucked into a situation that should be more common in science – scientists with common interests working closely together, supporting each other, and working toward the same scientific goals.

Curiouser&Curiouser: Unlike fishprint, I had not heard of Dr. Jahren before reading this book, but I think I initially expected to find a role model in Lab Girl.  I did not.  I found very few specifics in her story relatable, but these 3 themes resonated with me.  

  1. In science you do not act alone.  I felt like the second half of the story was basically a platonic love letter to her best friend/lab manager.  While at times I felt awkward when it seemed to me that she was writing for/to Bill, (even though he said he would never read the book) I appreciated the sentiment that led her to want to say thank you and make sure credit is appropriately shared.   
  2. Being a scientist is hard work. ‘Nuf said
  3. Your personal struggles impact your career both positively and negatively.  It’s not always possible to check your personal baggage at the door.  

SweetScience: Dr. Jahren has clearly worked hard throughout her education and career, but it seemed like many major elements (i.e. certain jobs, her work partner Bill) just fell into place for her. This is not to say that she didn’t earn and work to keep those things, but I can relate to feeling like some things just come to you, even while things you try so hard for remain elusive.

 

Here are a few quotes that resonated with us. (Pages refer to original hard-cover edition)

  • “…my true potential had more to do with my willingness to struggle than with my past and present circumstances.” P. 18
  • “As much as I have loved being a scientist, I am ready to admit that I am tired of all the hard things that should be easy by now.” P. 25 (stated in the context of funding, but widely applicable)
    • C&C: This was one of my favorite quotes from the book.  I feel discouraged at least weekly by how much of a struggle it can, and will continue to be.  
  • “…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.” P. 44
  • “On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.” P 71
  • “…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.” P 277
    • SS: I can’t directly relate to this because I feel that female scientists are common in my field/generation, but I do think it’s interesting and important to understand that someone has felt this way in very recent history. Further, I can relate to the idea of ‘making it up as I go along’ as it feels like everyone is struggling through the decisions that need to be made early in one’s career in a way that is probably different than previous decades, given the overabundance of PhDs, lower relative number of traditional academic research jobs, and wide array of other science-related careers open to us. There’s no clear path, and no history of scientists having to navigate these conditions.

 

What surprised you about the book?

SS: I was surprised that there was virtually nothing relating to the interactions between women and men in academia that are the focus of Dr. Jahren’s blog, and a talk I saw her give to a Women In Science group. Given that she’s had plenty of experiences relevant for the subject and is clearly passionate about the topic and changing the state of academia’s treatment of women, I wonder why she didn’t draw attention to those issues in this book. Maybe it will be the focus of book number two?

f: She still doesn’t sleep. She still goes to the lab every night.

P: I was also surprised about how she talked about working all night like it was normal and how her family seems like afterthought.

C&C: I didn’t pick up on her struggle with mental health issues early on in the book, and so I found her description of her interactions and environment unnerving and often depressing.  Once she made it clear that there was more going on than a selectively empathetic, extremely driven person I was able to let go of the idea that an “ideal scientist” should follow her model, and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the second half of the book.  

I also was shocked by Bill’s living conditions until they get to hawaii, what a loyal friend to stick it through!

 

Are there any messages in the book you disagree with for yourself or as a role model for young scientists?

SS: I don’t love the propagation of ‘the absent-minded professor’ stereotype, particularly the scientist who is so passionate and caught up in their work that they are up all night excited about a potential discovery at the expense of their personal lives; it is possible and indeed common for a career in research to be ‘just a job’ and that’s something I feel is a valuable message for young scientists.

f: Many of the pronouncements in this book are things that have worked for Jahren, and are not broadly true (or good) for other people. She is in lab all day and then hits the lab again every night starting around 10:30pm. I doubt she sleeps more than a few hours a night. And that’s OK for her, it makes her happy, and it works for her team (Bill). But seen as a message, it is a damaging one. My first PI bragged about sleeping 3 hours a night. In fact, every boss I’ve ever had has tedious glory days stories about being in the lab all night. They are not all successful, but they all want to cast themselves as passionate, committed night owls. Why? Is that really when they do their best work? That’s when I start breaking things and deleting files. Not sleeping and not caring for your health can look like a thing that interesting and successful people do, but it’s not going to work for everyone. In defense of Jahren, she’s just telling her story. It’s messy, it’s literally manic, and her life would only work for her.

Oh, and that part about trying to weed out the students who value their time. Sigh.

P: She paints a picture of a world where a certain type of man is what the world sees as a scientist, and thus she and her best friend/lab tech who is a man but doesn’t fit that description are science outsiders who have to work twice as hard as everyone else to gain scientific acceptance.

I do not argue with that, as that is clearly true. However, she paints an alternate picture of a stereotypical scientist. The scientist that can’t stop until they’ve answered all the questions. The scientist who works until their knuckles bleed and needs no other sustenance but a good question. I think a lot of people, including myself and my fellow bloggers, love science and consider ourselves scientists but also do not fit that stereotype of a scientist.

One sentence that caught my eye in the very first chapter was “I glanced at the clock and noted that my son had gone to bed several hours ago.” She makes clear that her priority is science over everything else. That is not how I want to live my life. Yes, my husband is perfectly capable of putting my children to bed and does on many occasions, but I like to put my children to bed. My children and my husband bring me joy and I knew a life with a husband and children was something I wanted as surely as I knew I loved science. Hope Jahren has written a memoir, so perhaps it is unfair to criticize what is only her own story. Her way is one way to be a scientist. Perhaps the problem is not that she has told her story without any acknowledgment of other alternative ways to be a scientist but that there are not more stories that make it to the mainstream of those other alternative ways to be a scientist.

C&C: From the description in the book I don’t think Jahren can be considered a viable role model for most young scientists.  She has a unique set of challenges and gifts (she has found the most loyal employee ever and neither of the seem to need to sleep?!) that make her career and life choices reasonable to her, but I can not see them leading to happiness or scientific success for most people.  

 

Who would you recommend this book to?

SS: I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about what it means to be an academic scientist, or who likes different memoirs.

f: People who enjoy memoirs and science. I would not pitch it as an “inspirational female scientist”.

P: On the whole, I enjoyed this book as a book. That is to say, I enjoyed reading it when not thinking critically about what message it was sending and whether I agreed with that. I think it tells a compelling story of a woman finding her way in the world. It flows well and drew me in.

I also think this book is good for anyone interested in the natural world. I learned a lot about seeds and trees.

C&C: I think people who feel marginalized and/or struggle with mental health issues may enjoy the book.

 

All in all, most of us enjoyed reading most of the book, and we’d love to hear what you think too – tell us in the comments!


6 responses so far

  • Morgan Price says:

    I thought the book was great. Hope and Bill do seem unusually driven even for scientists. I agree that there is a depressing subtext that if you're not a workaholic then you shouldn't become an academic scientist but that may not be so far off from the truth...

  • Zuska says:

    Very interesting book club review. I'm about to read this book myself.
    Based on this blog post, it sounds like the book could be that sort of thing we often talk about: a complex story of a woman who does science and her science, that is NOT about gender equity in science or recruiting women to science etc. I'm very curious to read now.

  • Katy says:

    I'm in the middle of my PhD and I found this book to be incredibly inspirational, mainly because I see a lot of myself in Dr. Jahren's story. I am actually the Bill to the postdoc in my lab. Our strengths and weaknesses compliment each other's in a way uncannily similar to Hope and Bill. When I look around i don't see other grad students who have much passion or drive to work all the time. They are more "sensible" and want a degree and a paying job. I just want to keep doing what I love. This book really helped me feel like less of an outsider and encouraged me to keep pursuing what I'm passionate about. Even if I'm a little eccentric, I may as well use those oddities to my advantage in my work.

  • LT says:

    I think we may be pinning too much of our hopes on Jahren simply because there are so few women "celebrities" in science and science communication. Because she is the only scientist voice on the NYT bestseller list, we want her to speak for all of us, but she can only speak for herself. It shows how badly we crave some women to be the next Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, E.O. Wilson, Carl Zimmer, Michael Pollan, David Attenborough, or J. Craig Venter! Sadly many people still only see self-promotion as a positive trait in men.

    Jahren is really eloquent at articulating for the general audience the constant money shortage, administrative work overload, and casual sexism we all encounter ("Sexism is the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can't possibly be what you are.”), but she also conveys the addictive thrill of observing some obscure fact about nature that no one has ever discovered before. I know that a lot of women who grew up in the 70s and 80s or prior similarly feel that they had to work much harder than their male colleagues to survive, and maybe they're right. It's really a good read.

    That said, I would have gotten really depressed had I read this as a 14-year-old with dreams of being a plant scientist.

    (Also, did anyone else think it was really weird how much time is spent on the specific details of her birth experience? The editors should have realized how non-sequitur that feels in the context of the book!)

    • sweetscience says:

      Great input, LT! Maybe we should encourage the interesting scientists we know personally to write more or put themselves out there in other ways? (As if they're not totally overloaded already...) I do think those messages you point out (especially funding!) are great for the lay audience as well.

      I actually wouldn't have thought the birth stuff was out of place except that so little else focused on her son or family life.

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