2017-05-11 / Opinions

Book Review

Lab Girl
By HOPE JAHREN
Reviewed by
PEGGY BARNETT

Lab Girl is hard to categorize. It’s a memoir, and it’s Jahren’s articulate plea that we notice and care about plant life, while convincing us that a life spent with science is a good life. She “grew up”, she says, in her father’s laboratory. He taught physics and earth science at a community college in rural Minnesota. Her community and her family were part of an emigration from Norway in the 1880’s. “The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.”

Jahren believes that this distance affected her relationships and attitudes for the rest of her life. She does have a warm and happy home life now with her husband and children, but for many years the only person to whom she really related was her brilliant and unusual lab partner Bill. She held a number of jobs along the way to becoming a plant scientist and college professor, but she was often insecure and always scratching for money for herself, her research, and for Bill’s salary.

She reports at one point that she comes up with research ideas, and Bill Implements them. The reader ends up as impressed with Bill as with her, which is obviously her plan. Working together, they made a witty, efficient team, best friends and colleagues, although technically he worked for her.

Together they moved the contents of a lab when a scientist friend was retiring. (They were always in the early days trying to keep their labs supplied on very low budgets.) They traveled 400 miles back to Baltimore as Bill pulled a U-Haul and Jahren followed in a car. Lost on the way out of the city, over the CB radio, the dialog went like this: Bill: “This thing will need gas within a couple of hours. I should have filled up while you were back there playing Goldilocks.”

Hope: “Shut up, dwarf. You must be grateful that your job is such a fairy tale. Not everybody can get away with biting the snow-white hand that feeds them the way you do.”

Alternating with the absorbing story of her life and career are selections about the life cycle of trees and flowers and other green things. She writes gracefully; though she reports on the often boring grunt work of experimentation, she conveys the excitement of discovery and successes. She tells us that a tree must absorb and then evaporate at least eight thousand gallons of water from the soil to accumulate the soil nutrients that its leaves require. “That’s enough to make you worry about when it’s next going to rain.”

She tells us that the vast majority of vines in North America were imported accidentally from Europe and Eurasia. (example – kudzu). For several billion years, there was no life on land on the Earth, though the oceans were richly populated. However, once the first plant did somehow make its way onto land, it took only a few million years for the continents to turn green.

She closes with a personal request. Plant one tree every year, on your own land or your rented property. Be a scientist. Lab Girl is a charming book and will soon be available at the Mary Willis Library.

Return to top