Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl

Author: Hope Jahren
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Date of Publication: April 5, 2016
Pages: 304

      Lab Girl is part memoir, part discussion of earth sciences and paleobiology and part discourse on women in male dominated (specifically scientific) fieldsThe book is informative, entertaining and humorous, often all at once.  It is extremely well written and thought provoking.

     The author relates her early life growing up with a physicist father and often accompanying him to his laboratory.  She naturally becomes interested in studying the sciences which was relatively unusual for young women in the 1970s.   While in college she worked as a pharmacy technician and became enamored with working in a hospital.  She had this to say about that experience:

"Working in the hospital teaches you that 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.  Twenty-five years later, I still cannot reject this as an inaccurate worldview."

     Dr. Jahren graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota and instead of pursuing medicine, obtained a PhD. from the University of California, Berkeley.  Her field of interest is soil science.  She has developed innovative methods of studying fossil forests during a distinguished academic career at Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins and now at the University of Hawaii.

    In  Lab Girl the author spends alternating chapters illuminating areas of her scientific expertise with how these studies have shaped her life story.  It is intriguing the way that she counterposes chapters describing some area of her plant study with incidents from her personal history which follow the same path.  For example she expounds upon plant habitats:

"A cactus doesn't live in the desert because it likes the desert;  it lives there because the desert hasn't killed it yet.  Any plant that you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert.  The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods:  nobody living there can afford to move."

She also describes living in downtown Baltimore in a reclaimed neighborhood in much the same fashion.  The author finishes her description of desert plant life by describing resurrection plants - small plants which wither and turn brown during drought conditions but rapidly re-hydrate during rain.  She follow up this discussion with a chapter describing her own experience with mania, comparing the human sensations of heightened energy and sensitivity to the to the biologic over activity of the desert resurrection plant during a storm.

     In Lab Girl Dr. Jahren makes her points about women in traditionally male roles without turning the book into a feminist screed.  At one point she notes: "In my own small experience, sexism  has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can't possibly be what you are."

     Lab Girl is memoir at its finest.  It was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, a "New York Times" 2016 Notable Book and an Amazon Top 20 book of 2016.  The author is boldly honest as revealed in these quotes:

"My early career had all the makings of a long, slow academic train wreck."   

"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."

"Our world is falling apart quietly.  Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine, and wood.   In our relentless and ever-intensifying obsession with obtaining a higher volume, potency, and variety of these three things, we have devastated plant ecology to an extend that millions of years of natural disaster could not."

Read Lab Girl.  You will be glad that you did.

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