Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On the care and feeding of young scientists: Hope Jahren's "Lab Girl"

What kind of writer can pen a gripping, suspenseful, can't-put-the-book-down passage about watching moss grow?

Her name is Hope Jahren, and if you care about science, teaching, students, nature, trees, moss, or really terrific writing, you need to read her memoir, Lab Girl, a funny, moving, and insightful exploration of the growing conditions required to nurture great trees and great scientists.

Now a botanist with her own lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Jahren was born in rural Minnesota to Norwegian parents who mastered both science and silence. Her father, a biology professor at a local community college, and her mother, whose promising academic career was thwarted by midcentury gender norms, come across as emotionally distant and demanding perfectionists:

While I was a child, I assumed that the whole world acted like we did, and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who effortlessly gave each other the simple warmth and casual affection that I had craved for so long. I then had to learn to live in a world where when people don't talk to each other, it is because they don't know each other, not because they do.

The young Hope nevertheless flourished in her mother's garden and her father's lab. She describes the lab as home, refuge, playground, church, and castle; beakers and bunsen burners "were not kids' toys; they were serious things for grown-ups, but you were a special kid because your dad had that huge ring of keys, so you could play with the equipment anytime you went there with him, because he never, ever said no when you asked him to take it all out."

Although she "never heard a single story about a living female scientist, never met one or even saw one on television," young Hope found a home in her father's lab and strove to recover that sense of home in every new lab she entered or created. "People are like plants: they grow toward the light," she writes; "I chose science because science gave me what I needed--a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be."

But that sense of safety did not mean pursuing a career in science was either safe or easy. Jahren details her struggles with manic episodes, failed procedures, exploding equipment, inadequate funding, intransigent students, and with trying to maintain a research agenda while pregnant, all described in a style alternately playful and contemplative. Her joy in language (informed by a wide range of reading) makes her most mundane task seem like an adventure, and she can draw meaning out of the unfurling of a leaf or the symbiotic linking of fungus and root.

Jahren finds linkages everywhere she looks; indeed, the very structure of the book emphasizes the connections between plants and people. Long narrative chapters detailing events in Jahren's life alternate with very short chapters focusing on specific elements of plants--the seed, the root, the leaf. These short chapters are highly informative and lively; further, they echo important themes from the narrative chapters, suggesting a joyful symbiosis between the scientist and the object of study.   

"A seed knows how to wait," she writes at the beginning of one short chapter, and after she shows readers various seeds waiting to become what they will be, she ends the chapter on a philosophical note: "Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited."

It would be easy to focus on the more dramatic moments in the narrative--the bizarre encounter with monkeys, the van full of students sliding on the icy highway, the test-tubes full of samples seized by customs agents--but I am drawn to Jahren's frequent meditations on the nature of scientific inquiry. Once she visits a mentor who is retiring after a long career without having reached the end of his research:    
It was kind of tragic, I reflected, that we all spent our lives working but never really got good at our work, or even finished it. The purpose instead was for me to stand on the rock that he had thrown into the rushing river, bend down and claw another rock from the bottom, and then cast it down further and hope it would be a useful next step for some person with whom Providence might allow me to cross paths.
I am not a scientist but that image describes beautifully the work we do in the classroom, capturing the mingled futility and hope experienced by those of us wading in academic streams. 

Elsewhere Jahren considers the way her perception of her world changes with time and the necessity of finding a meaningful way to measure and record those changes. "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," she writes, adding, "It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more."

Young Hope has grown up and her father's lab has vanished, but in Lab Girl she records something important: how the growth of a scientist and the growth of a tree are not so different as they might first appear.

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