A journey can be an actual trip or it can be a pathway to spiritual or emotional growth. It can describe the change of a relationship, the sharing or ending of a marriage, the details of a career, the recognition of a calling. It can describe the faithfulness of God’s work in a life or the dark night of a soul in that same life. It can even describe our paradigm shifts, the changes in thinking and the unlearning we have to do throughout our lives. This series of blogs is about the journeys of life. “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren describes the difficult but exhilarating journey of a female scientist and her passion for trees.
Whether you love science, are confused by science, or hate science, Lab Girl is the book for you. Dr. Hope Jahren is as successful with her hybrid first book as she is in her geobiology lab. In addition to be an honored biologist, she is a beautiful and inspiring writer.
This book first of all a memoir of the life of a female scientist who grew up accompanying her scientist/professor father nearly every week night in his lab, playing beneath the lab benches until she was tall enough to play on them. This early introduction to the scientific process fostered her curiosity about science and taught her about scientific research.
Jahren grew up in a Scandinavian family in Minnesota, which meant an emotional distance between family members, extended family members, and neighbors which seemed to be acceptable to everyone but her. Her loneliness drove her to work harder and longer and more creatively. Her position and value as a female researcher in science was not affirmed until she began winning awards for her work.* She loved teaching and mentoring students – especially those as driven as she was.
This beautiful and graceful story details her relationship with two men, Bill her rock solid best friend and loyal lab partner and Clint Conrad, a renowned mathematician, the love of her life, husband, and father of her son. It also presents a transparent tale of her years’ long struggle with bi-polar disease.
Interspersed between chapters about her life, are bite-sized science lessons about trees. For a person who struggled in a college biology class that was focused on memorization of facts, these sections of the book were delightful learning experiences. Here’s part of the first lesson:
A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance – to take its one and only chance to grow . . . .
After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell.
Jahren’s passionate writing about roots and leaves and seeds and woods and knots and flowers and fruit and their inter-relationship with each other and with us is an amazing blessing for a Christian who loves God’s creation. Each new piece of scientific information creates a sense of wonder and awe that many of us have lost or not cultivated. In addition, Jahren’s equally passionate warnings about the damage that humans have done to a planet that lived collaboratively and successfully for millions of years before we disrupted it are horrifying and motivating.
This book is a fascinating memoir of Jahren’s journey as a scientist, an amazing science lesson, and a passionate plea to save the world of trees before it is too late – for them and for us. I highly recommend this book!
Hope Jahren has received three Fulbright Awards: in 1992 for geology work conducted in Norway, in 2003 for environmental science work conducted in Denmark, and in 2010 for arctic science work conducted in Norway. In 2001, Jahren won the Donath Medal, awarded by the Geological Society of America. In 2005, she was awarded the Macelwane Medal, becoming the first woman and fourth scientist overall to win both the Macelwane Medal and the Donath Medal. Jahren was profiled by Popular Science magazine in 2006 as one of its “Brilliant 10” scientists. She was a 2013 Leopold Fellow at Stanford University’s Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. In 2016, Time Magazine named her one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People.”