I really wanted to love this book. I’ve never been a science girl (history is more my jam), and I really wanted this to awaken a dormant love of science that I never knew I had. I didn’t (love it), and at most it helped me understand, maybe a little bit, why OTHER people love science. Sigh.

Author Hope Jahren

BUT. I liked it a lot…which for me, for a book about science, is saying something. Author Hope Jahren, a trained botanist, writes beautifully, in (mostly) really accessible language clearly aimed at people whose last science class might have been in high school (ahem).

If nothing else, it’s full of things I didn’t know, both good and bad:

  • Trees “communicate” with each other! Willows in Sitka, Alaska, damaged by a bug infestation, managed to send chemical notices to their “siblings” up to a mile away, signaling to their sister trees that they should build up defenses against the bugs. The other trees got the message…and survived the infestation.
  • The sweet potatoes of the future, will be larger, but much less nutritious (they’re likely to be grown in higher temperatures due to increased greenhouse gas levels). So we’ll be able to feed more people…but less well. Sigh.
  • Americans claim we value STEM education…but there’s a vast discrepancy between this claim and the funding we supply to actually accomplish it.
  • The daily work of scientists is hard, tedious, and repetitive…and as a chapter on Irish moss showed, sometimes futile. If you think it seems unglamorous and unexciting, think of something even worse than you’re imagining and you might be getting close.

On the other hand, I found myself skimming a chapter about the intrinsic beauty of a home-made mass spectrometer Jahren and her lab partner gleaned from a retiring colleague. It was moving to see the appreciation they had for the piece; we all have those specialized pieces of knowledge that only fellow members of your industry would “get”…but I suspect the level of detail included would be much more appreciated by someone actually IN the sciences.

I did love how Jahren expressed her appreciation to her retiring mentor upon being gifted with his lab materials:

“It was kind of tragic, I reflected, that we all spent our lives working but never really got good at our work, or even finished it. The purpose instead was for me to stand on the rock that he had thrown into the rushing river, bend and claw another rock from the bottom, and then cast it down a bit further and hope it would be a useful next step for some person with whom Providence might allow me to cross paths. Until then I would keep our beakers, thermometers, and electrodes in my care, hoping against hope that not all of it would be garbage upon my own retirement.”

Hope and Bill

Threading in and out of these science-based chapters is the story of Jahren’s own life: Growing up in a small town in Minnesota with a college-professor father who fostered her love of science; the academic life that is harder than she thought, given a general lack of acceptance of women in the sciences; her blossoming relationship with the man who would become her husband; her frank struggle with bipolar disorder; and her intense emotions upon completing a difficult pregnancy and becoming a mother. It’s a memoir of sorts, a reflection on all the ways in which science has been a part of, and the guiding force in, her life.

More mysterious than anything Jahren explains about plant life is her relationship with her unconventional lab partner, Bill, woven throughout the book. Bill is a quirky sort, with few roots keeping him in place…so he’s able to job-hop to stay with Jahren as her work takes her from university to university and, eventually, tenure at the University of Hawai’i. It’s likely the longest relationship of her life, and certainly one of the most meaningful:

“People still puzzle over the two of us, Bill and me. Are we siblings? Soul mates? Comrades? Novitiates? Accomplices? We eat almost every meal together, our finances are mixed, and we tell each other everything. We travel together, work together, finish each other’s sentences, and have risked our lives for each other. I’m happily married with a family and Bill was an obvious precondition to all that, a brother whom I would never give up, part of the package. But people that I meet still seem to want a label for what is between us. Just as with the potatoes, I don’t have an answer for that one. I do us because us is what I know how to do.”

Even through all the science and research and experiments and fact-finding, that’s one mystery that seemingly cannot be plumbed: the enigma of human relationships. What draws us to those other “kindred spirits” we stumble upon throughout our lives? What makes us come together and move apart? Science maybe doesn’t have an answer for that one yet.

Besides being beautifully written, Lab Girl inspires, simply because of Jahren’s sheer enthusiasm for all things plant-related. You know she’s doing exactly what she was born to do…and we can all only hope to be so lucky.


Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at info@nexttenwords.com

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