I first heard of the memoir Lab Girl by Hope Jahren on an episode of the New York Times Bookpodcast, which I listen to every week. I was intrigued by the interview with the author, so I was thrilled when my neighborhood book group chose the memoir about a female scientist. I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining memoir that also packs a surprisingly powerful emotional punch.
Hope begins her memoir in the beginning, writing about her childhood in cold Minnesota, playing under the chemistry tables in her father’s lab at a local college where he taught. She realized, after she later went out into the world, that most people were not like her reticent, emotionally reserved Scandinavian family. She felt some closeness to her father because she shared his passion for science but had a distant relationship with her mother, though she has some happy memories of working in the garden with her during the short Minnesota growing season.
When it came time for Hope to go to college, she surprisingly chose to major in literature but soon realized she belonged in science, feeling at home in the laboratory. She recounts her experiences working in laboratories in college, as well as her unique experiences working in the hospital pharmacy at the University of Minnesota, helping to make up complicated courses of chemo involving multiple drugs and absolute adherence to strict sterility guidelines. After getting her undergraduate degree, she moved onto other universities for graduate degrees and eventually, teaching and running her own labs, criss-crossing the country from California to Georgia and Baltimore and finally to Hawaii.
In between longer chapters about her life and career, Hope intersperses shorter chapters about the topic of her lifelong studies and passion: plants. She cleverly matches the topics of these interesting and informative briefs to the part of her life she is discussing: roots, leaves, wood and knots, flowers and fruit, etc. Hope also talks openly about her personal challenges, which were (and continue to be) considerable. I won’t spoil it for you with details since she delves into that topic well into the memoir, but she has dealt with some amazingly difficult things.
Her honesty and willingness to share the raw emotions of her challenges made those sections of the memoir the most powerful and moving for me. As a scientist, she approaches even those very difficult topics with a straightforward and factual voice that make her struggles all the more moving. Here, she is talking about problems in the lab, but the passage applies equally well to her personal life:
“I know damn well that if there had been a way to get to success without traveling through disaster someone would have already done it and thus rendered the experience unnecessary, but there’s still no journal where I can tell the story of how my science is done with both the heart and the hands.”
That’s exactly what she does in this book, but it is not a depressing story. Hope describes those challenges in a matter-of-fact way and never loses her wry sense of humor. Many of the sections describing her escapades with her longtime eccentric lab partner, Bill, are laugh-out-loud funny, and I read several passages aloud to my husband. I especially liked their spontaneous road trip to Florida with a group of students to see a weird roadside attraction. Whether describing her projects in the lab; her relationships with Bill, her husband, and her child; or the harrowing trials she has endured personally, Hope approaches it all with a calm, matter-of-fact style that is warm, funny, and completely engrossing. Looks like that liberal arts degree was put to good use after all.
282 pages, Alfred A. Knopf