Lab Girl is foremost a biography tracing the arc of Ms. Jahren’s life from a childhood in a small Minnesota town first learning about science from a loving father, onwards through graduate school, then moving through a series of professorships across the U.S. Jahren provides a raw, unfiltered glimpse of one scientist’s personal journey to succeed using every tool at her disposal, including a wild sense of humor, an unremitting endurance, and a maniacal joy in the process of discovery, one measurement at a time.
“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…
…When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters, because the single birch tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.”
Jahren’s challenges included an endless struggle for financial solvency, one annual budget at a time, overcoming bipolar disorder and its debilitating effects, and enduring a difficult pregnancy made no easier by an unsympathetic faculty. The message, at least for me, is scientists are people, like anyone else, managing their own problems. It’s easy to forget when Science’s success stories are continually put on display without note of any mortal struggles they may have faced or the casualties of the scientific system who might have been scientists under less adverse conditions.
“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades—even centuries—will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.
Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells (the “hypocotyl”) advance from the seed coat. The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.”
Aside from milestones, the book details not just Jahren’s challenges as a woman scientist but also her scientific adventures in foreign lands: the Arctic Circle, the hills of Ireland, and Mississippi. Field trips teaching students soil science seem better described as road trips with Jahren’s dryly humorous recollections of bare-bones camping and oddball detours. Throughout her career, She is held up by a persistent and enduring friendship with her lab assistant, Bill, a friendship that defies easy categorization but is touching nonetheless.
“The day after the University of Minnesota conferred upon me a bachelor’s degree cum laude, I dumped off my winter clothes in a big pile at the Salvation Army on Lake Street, took Hiawatha Avenue south to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, and flew to San Francisco. After I got to Berkeley, I didn’t so much meet Bill. It was more like I identified him…
…It took me about a week to notice that one of our undergraduate students—the one who looked like a young Johnny Cash and was perennially clad in jeans and a leather jacket even in 105-degree heat—always somehow ended up several meters away from the edge of the group, digging his own private hole… …I looked at the course roster and determined by process of elimination that the loner’s name was Bill. I went over and interrupted his solitary work. “How are you doing? Do you have any questions or anything?”
Without looking up, Bill refused my help, saying, “Nah. I’m good.” I stood there for a minute and then walked away and checked on another group, evaluated their progress, and answered some questions. About thirty minutes later, I noticed that Bill was now digging a second hole, his first one having been carefully refilled and smoothed over at its top. I picked up his clipboard and saw that his soil evaluation had been completed meticulously and that he had also included his second-best answers in a separate column down the right side of the page. At the very top of his report, suitability for “infrastructure” was checked, and a specification of “juvenile detention center” had been added in careful handwriting.
I stood next to his hole. “Looking for gold?” I joked, trying to strike up a conversation.
“No. I just like to dig,” he explained without stopping. “I used to live in a hole.””
Jahren is not afraid to delve into her own failures. Failures I suspect most scientists experience but rarely divulge. Throughout the book, she explains selected research projects: from genesis of a hypothesis or question through overcoming technical hurdles to finally answering the question.
The biography is interspersed by beautifully written descriptions of life from a plant’s perspective: the gamble every seed must make, a taproot’s life-or-death quest for water and nutrients, a tree’s adolescence, maturation and death. These passages allowed me to see through Jahren’s scientific eye—how she must perceive things, adopting as much as possible, a plant’s context to enable her to gain insight into the omnipresent, but generally overlooked, green life around us.
“The leaves of the world comprise countless billion elaborations of a single, simple machine designed for one job only—a job upon which hinges humankind. Leaves make sugar. Plants are the only things in the universe that can make sugar out of nonliving inorganic matter. All the sugar that you have ever eaten was first made within a leaf. Without a constant supply of glucose to your brain, you will die. Period. Under duress, your liver can make glucose out of protein or fat—but that protein or fat was originally constructed from a plant sugar within some other animal. It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.”
Her writing possesses a poetry, her eloquent prose mingled with, at times, a cringe-inducing honesty that will make her scientific ideas uniquely available to a non-scientific audience. Her unabashed, general weirdness is delightful and refreshing (speaking as a bonafide weirdo myself). In the end, Jahren’s story is one of survival and more—she seems to define and arrive at her own version of success and happiness.
“A new mind-set became imperative: perhaps I could learn to see the world as plants do, put myself in their place, and puzzle out how they work. As a terminal outsider to their world, how close could I come to getting inside? I tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it. I thought of the different labs that I had worked in and the wonderful machines, chemicals, and microscopes that gave me so much happiness . . . What kind of hard science could I bring to bear on this weird quest?
The perversity of such an approach was seductive; what was there to stop me, aside from my own fear of being “unscientific”? I knew that if l told people I was studying “what it’s like to be a plant,” some would dismiss me as a joke, but perhaps others might sign on just for the adventure. Maybe hard work could stabilize scientifically shaky ground. I didn’t know for sure, but I felt the first delicious twinges of what would be my life’s enduring thrill. It was a new idea, my first real leaf. Just like every other audacious seedling in the world, I would make it up as I went along.”
In some ways, Jahren’s book aligns with my own experience of the world of academic science as a system in which the struggle for money dominates and senior scientists manage rather than conduct science. I declined a life of always competing for grant funding, where competition seems to overshadow collaboration. I lost faith in my own ability to ask the right questions and find the answers, but not for a lack of curiosity. I suspect successful scientists like Ms. Jahren possess an unquenchable curiosity mingled with enough determination and talent and perhaps just enough mentorship to drive them beyond whatever obstacles lie in their path just like the few seeds who manage to break through to the light.