One of the books I read and finished in 2016 but haven’t told you about yet is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Jahren is a geobiologist, which essentially means she studies plants. But not plants as a botanist would. Some of what she studies has to do with the ancient remains of plants so we spend lots of time digging holes in the middle of nowhere and sometimes in very cold places. Or she studies how spruce trees grown from seeds of trees that had a warmer season react in colder weather versus spruce grown from seeds that had a very cold season. Geobiologist. I had no idea this was a thing. If I had, I might be working as one right now.
Or not. Because from what Jahren says getting funding for your own lab is a huge amount of work. The university pays her salary and it is up to her to get grants to fund her research and pay her lab assistant, Bill.
Jahren met Bill in college when she was a grad student working as a TA. Bill has followed Jahren around from university to university and lab to lab since Jahren’s first job. They are great friends and Bill sounds like a really good guy and interesting person, but I often found myself wondering why he puts up with Jahren as a boss. In spite of being homeless for awhile in the beginning and living in a tiny office at Jahren’s lab because she couldn’t pay him enough so he could afford an apartment, he must obviously get something out of the arrangement since they are still working together and the book is Jahren’s homage to Bill.
And that’s all fine and good, but I was not interested in reading an homage to Bill. I want to know about what it is like to be a geobiologist with her own lab. She reveals she is bipolar but doesn’t talk directly about how it affects her work and it is obvious that it does. I want to know about what it is like being a woman doing science in a male dominated field. She does talk a little about the sexism she encountered, how she had to work extra hard to gain any kind of recognition and how she was banned from her own lab while she was pregnant. Being banned from her lab sounds like there may have been more complications to it that she reveals, it also obviously comes with a big dose of sexism.
She didn’t talk about this enough though. She told story after story of walloping antics she and Bill were involved in like driving halfway across the country at the last minute so she could present a paper at a conference. She got a couple grad students to come along so they could all take turns driving and wouldn’t have to stop at a hotel. She made them all pee in bottles because there was no time to stop. But she pig-headedly insisted on driving through a snowstorm and one of the students driving had never driven in snow before and ended up flipping the minivan when she hit a patch of ice. Jahren still wouldn’t call it quits though and they made it to the conference. We don’t get to know how the conference went or even what it is like to attend such a conference.
In fact, we don’t get to see Jahren doing much work at all. But I know she does as she talks about spending days working in the lab until the wee hours and she has won a number of science awards. However, reading Lab Girl makes it sound like she spends most of her time goofing off, or pressuring students into doing things they might not want to, or leaving Bill to do everything.
In between Jahren’s personal chapters are chapters about trees and plants. These short in between chapters were wonderful and exciting and full of fascinating information. They were a stark contrast to the madcap adventures of the personal chapters and provided an all too brief glimpse of Jahren as scientist deserving of awards. Even the writing was better, more focused, often lyrical:
Each beginning is the end of waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.
In the in between chapters I learned stuff:
The mass ratio of plants to animals in the ocean is close to four, while the ratio on land is closer to a thousand. Plant numbers are staggering: there are eighty billion trees just within the protected forests of the western United States. The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred. As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them.
Doesn’t that make you want to pay more attention? It does me!
And as a gardener who regularly plants and saves seeds, celebrates when plants move themselves around my garden to interesting places, or grumbles when they get themselves into areas I don’t want them, I was surprised to learn
Of the many millions of seeds dropped on every acre of the Earth’s surface each year, less than 5 percent will begin to grow. Of those, only 5 percent will survive to their first birthday.
This made me kind of sad.
Even though I liked the in between chapters better than the personal chapters and had some grumbles about the book as a whole, I still enjoyed it overall. It wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be, nonetheless, it is a book by a successful woman scientist and that is worth something.