The title of Hope Jahren's book, Lab Girl, does not immediately tell you what this book is about. Instead you get an idea that it has something to do with science, and probably women, but there is so much more to this book.
Jahren's memoir details her life as the child of a father who was a longtime, community college science professor in Minnesota. Her mother also wished to pursue a career in science, but, as for many women of her time, circumstances just didn’t make it possible to be a wife and a professional scientist. This led Jahren to pursue a scientific career for herself, something which you learn is not a particularly easy one to be successful at, but she has accomplished that with The Jahren Laboratory in Hawaii. She has been recognized by Time Magazine as "Science's Great Communicator."
We meet Bill, her longtime lab partner and confidante, who is instrumental in helping Jahren become a great scientist. Bill is an unusual character and almost seems larger than life, but we are assured that he is a real person. He didn’t mind living in his van to make ends meet, or saving his own hair in an old tree, which he visits at times.
Although Jahren blogs a lot about the role of women in science, she does not go on at length on that topic in this book. However, the topic is always there as a subtext to nearly everything she accomplishes in science.
There is a particularly harrowing and fascinating chapter about her pregnancy and childbirth experience, complicated greatly by having to go off her medications for bipolar disorder. Her marriage and the birth of her son seem to have given her a great deal of stability and joy. Especially poignant is her detailed description of spending time with a future granddaughter, who is years away from ever existing, and whom she may never see.
But, the best part of the book is the recurring theme of trees. Jahren studies them, and there are several short chapters where you learn how trees are born, how they grow, and how they die, either of natural causes, or more commonly, by human hands. Jahren’s professional career has been all about trees, and she may be sounding the saddest song for trees since The Lorax.
In the epilogue, Jahren orders (at least it seemed to me) everyone to go and plant one tree this year. Having finished reading this book around midnight, I was ready to do it that night. But, it will have to wait.