Lab Girl is a memoir, an account of Hope Jahren’s progress as a student and then a scientist working in the academy. It is interspersed with lessons on seed germination, soil properties, plant growth, life cycles, and other botany-related subjects.
Hope Jahren—her full name is Anne Hope Jahren—is a scientist and teacher who is passionate about her chosen field. Of course, that can probably be said of many academics, especially those who have channeled their passion into literature that is accessible by laypeople. This book is not only well written and accessible, though, it is laugh-out-loud funny in places.
The description on page 117 of a visit with several students to Monkey Jungle Island, a tourist attraction in Florida is an excellent example. Later in the narrative Jahren describes a cross-country trip by van to a conference in San Francisco and a terrible crash on an icy interstate highway in the mountains of Colorado. One can almost smell the interior of the van at the end of the trip, that vivid is the description.
While humor, effective instructional writing, and great storytelling move the narrative forward, it is also driven by Hope Jahren’s frustration with the deplorable state of research funding, the status of women in the sciences, and the continuing degradation of the environment.
Being a memoir, the point of Lab Girl is not to deliver a seamless account of Hope Jahren’s life. Still, it is a bit startling that there is little to describe the transition from the Hope Jahren of early struggles, who lived day and night in her lab and survived on pizza and Ensure, to the successful academic who is blissfully married to the perfect husband and hopelessly devoted to their child. It is still heartening to know that she was able to make that transition.
It’s also clear from the narrative that there would also be no Hope Jahren, successful academic, were it not for Bill Hagopian, her long-time lab assistant, good friend, confidant, and Dutch uncle. Bill should tell the story from his side.
Lab Girl would merit five stars from this reviewer were it not for one flaw, the unfettered use of profanity. It’s hard to imagine how Jahren was able to recall in detail conversations that included such language fifteen years or more after they took place unless she kept an exhaustive journal. Even if the conversations are accurately recorded, one has to wonder why it is necessary to include language that is still censored by broadcast media in the United States. It would be easy to recommend this book to grandchildren and other young people who might consider careers in the sciences, but the profanity makes that problematic.
In spite of that, this is a great memoir. The time and effort expended in reading it are well invested.
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