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”—from Lab Girl (p. 29)
Lab Girl is a nature lover’s story about digging in dirt and discovering new things about old growth. It’s a scientist’s story about running experiments and waiting and wondering and asking for funds and fending off doubt. It’s a Midwesterner’s story of moving south and east and west and noticing the differences. It’s 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. “I used to pray to be made stronger,” Jahren writes in Lab Girl. “Now I pray to be made grateful” (p. 256).
The prologue to Jahren’s memoir is an invitation to the reader: to look out the window; to see something green; to home in on that vision of green—a tree, say; to look more closely at 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).
“I was never going to turn into one of these bearded professors with the pipe, walking around campus, that everyone thinks is the world expert…. I had to learn how to reward myself and I think I am better off for that. All I have ever wanted is one more day in the lab with the people I care about. And every day that I get that, I am grateful.” –from an interview with the Guardian
Hope Jahren grew up in the small town of Austin, Minnesota, a hundred miles south of Minneapolis and five miles north of the Iowa border, where her family has been for three generations. Her great grandparents “had come to Minnesota as part of a mass emigration from Norway that began in about 1880,” she explains in her memoir, Lab Girl (p. 11). That’s about all she knows of her ancestors, she claims, describing her Scandinavian family as prone to long silences and vast emotional distances. “I suspected that [my great-grandparents] hadn’t relocated to the coldest place on Earth and then taken up disemboweling pigs because things were going well in Europe, but it had never occurred to me to ask for the story.”
Jahren’s father taught physics and earth science for 42 years and had a lab at a local community college, where Jahren and her three older brothers loved to hang out. “I grew up in my father’s laboratory and played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them,” says Jahren (p. 7). Though her mother had showed an early aptitude for science, she’d had limited opportunities to pursue it, and instead raised a family, grew a garden, and took correspondence courses in English literature, often discussing the books with her daughter. “She set her hair in curlers while listening to records of Carl Sandburg’s poems over and over, and instructed me on how to hear the words differently each time,” says Jahren. (p. 16). In school, Jahren was punished for reading ahead of the class, which she turned into a learning experience. “Tiny but determined, I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing that it’s more than people want to see” (p. 16).
She completed her undergraduate education in geology at the University of Minnesota in 1991 while holding a variety of different jobs. “I worked as a proofreader for the university’s press, a secretary to the dean of agriculture, a cameraperson for the long-distance learning program, and a machinist polishing glass slides,” she says. “I taught swimming lessons, fetched library books, and ushered rich people to their seats within Northrop Auditorium. But none of it compared with the time I spent working in a hospital pharmacy,” an experience she elaborates on in her memoir (p. 32).
She went on to earn her PhD in 1996 at the University of California-Berkeley in the field of soil science. Shortly after, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she taught geology and geochemistry at Georgia Tech and opened her first lab with the help of her close friend Bill Hagopian. She lived on the outskirts of town in a rented trailer in the woods with a “geriatric mare named Jackie” (p. 130). During this time, she struggled with bipolar disorder until she was able to get help and proper medication. In 1999, she and Hagopian moved her lab from Georgia to the basement of the Johns Hopkins University geology department.
Jahren worked at Johns Hopkins University from 1999 to 2008, and then moved to Honolulu where she became a tenured professor at the University of Hawai’i and built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories. She moved again in 2016 to Norway where she is currently a professor at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics and runs her own lab. (Hagopian, her friend and lab partner, has moved with her to each new location.) She has received three Fulbright Awards; is one of four scientists, and the only woman, to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences (the Donath and the Macelwane medals); was profiled by Popular Science as one of its “Brilliant 10” scientists; and was named in 2016 by Time magazine as one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People.”
As for writing, Jahren says it’s a skill scientists must master. “No writer in the world agonizes over words the way a scientist does,” she explains. “When documenting our work, we ‘hypothesize’ but never ‘guess’; we ‘conclude,’ not just ‘decide’” (p. 25). It has perhaps served Jahren well that she began honing her writing skills early in life. “I remember writing stories and poems and comic strips for my teachers and parents and friends from very young,” she says. “I remember writing plays in third grade, and trying to get my girlfriends to perform them. I wrote copious letters to pen pals through school, and still keep up written correspondence with many people who are very dear to me.” It helped, too, that she was also an avid reader. “The great books that I have read have furnished me with the tools that I use to understand my life, similar to how the math and chemistry courses that I took furnished me with approaches for solving problems in the lab. When you read a great book, it stays with you, though you may not understand the import of some of its messages until later in life” (The Refresh).
Jahren published her debut book of creative nonfiction—the memoir Lab Girl (Knopf)—in 2016 to widespread critical acclaim. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, among other awards, and was named a best book of the year by a number of prominent magazines. “People ask me about my process,” Jahren tweeted in 2017. “I wrote for 6.5 hours today. I produced 880 words, probably 850 are keepers. This is pretty standard.”
Today, one might find Jahren in her lab in Oslo, or writing, or spending time with her husband—Clint Conrad, a fellow scientist—and their son. “I have returned to Norway, almost a century after my great-grandfather left, and made it my home. I even have a little land to my name, and, by my rough calculations, more than one million individual flowers bloom upon my overgrown quarter-acre every year,” she wrote in the New York Times. She also clearly has fun on Twitter. “Did u want a copy of #labgirl and not get one?” she asked shortly after one holiday season. “Tweet me a photo of the awfulest thing u got instead. The awfulestest get a signed copy.” Winners included a pair of used socks, a second-hand crowbar, and a mug in the shape of a toilet.
With her memoir now an international bestseller, Jahren has become a strong public advocate for women and girls in science. When Seventeen magazine came up with #ManicureMondays, encouraging girls to post photos of their painted fingernails, Jahren encouraged female scientists of all ages to post photos of their fingers conducting scientific experiments. “If you are interested in science, my advice to you is to enjoy It!” Jahren told ScienceNetLinks. “Have fun with it, and then afterwards, think very carefully about the fun: Why do you like it? Which parts do you like? What parts are harder? Then do some experiments: If I do this, will it lead to something fun? How can I make this more fun?”
ScienceNetLinks – Teacher resources that uses Lab Girl as a starting point for a close look at the life of a scientist and the impact her professional and personal experiences had on her career. Includes free, downloadable activity sheets.