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A plant lover’s ode to the memoir of another: A scientist’s review of Lab Girl

“People are like plants, they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed — a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.” -Hope Jahren

This book was given to me as a gift from a British professor (who eventually became a valued friend and mentor to me during my Ph.D. days), with the words “This is you!”. From the moment I turned the first page, I was hooked. Working towards a Ph.D. on understanding complex plant behavior, and trying to draw parallels with the animal kingdom, this book gave me the words I had not yet spoken.

Lab Girl is not just a simple biography. This is a book about self-discovery and enduring friendships as much as it is about the life of a scientist and an illuminating introduction to the secret life of plants, from their perspective. The prologue is an invitation to the reader: to look out the window; to see something green; to look more closely, at say a leaf; and to ask a question about that leaf. “Guess what?” she then writes.

“You are now a scientist. People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They’re wrong…. What comes first is a question, and you’re already there.” (p. 4)

Plants are the heroes of this story. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Throughout the book, Jahren draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. As a true mark of an exceptional writer and a botanist, she fills this book with insightful lines that, while describing plant traits, could also readily be translated as life advice for the readers.

“A seed knows how to wait” (p. 30);
“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root” (p. 52);
“The life of a deciduous tree is ruled by its annual budget” (p. 120);
“A vine makes it up as it goes along” (p. 126);
“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet” (p. 144),

and my personal favorite

“Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be” (p. 31).

Though she’s talking about a seed, she could easily also be talking about her closest friend, Bill, who provides her help throughout her career and plays a key role in her life.

The pure joy and excitement that only a scientist can experience when discovering something new, something nobody knew before, is communicated beautifully through Jahren’s story. She captures the entire process of gathering data, repeating experiments, days and weeks of waiting and watching, the all-nighters, and the hope and serendipity in this one sentence:

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” (p. 29)

From highlighting the issue of funding in academia, to losing work-life balance, she does not shy away from discussing what it means to be a scientist, which includes both the joys and craziness that comes with doing research. I also appreciated how she honestly talked about her mental disorder and how she overcame it. That made me love the book a little bit more, as I could see that along with being a reputed scientist and passionate observer of the natural world, she is also human.

Lab Girl is a girl’s story about growing up to be what she wants to be. And it’s a woman’s story about fighting stereotypes, sacrificing, feeling vulnerable, trusting in friendship, getting sick, getting help, finding love, and writing it all down. Hope Jahren has become the voice science has been waiting for. She did an outstanding job of making plant lives relatable, especially to the non-scientific audience. The feminist in me screamed with joy upon reading these words

“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).

She has become a role model for many female scientists like me who dream of

someday leading our own research labs, to write our own stories!

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