by Hope Jahren
Random House Audio, 2016
Review by Christian Perring on May 17th 2016
Hope Jahren reads her own book in the unabridged audiobook, and she makes a strong impression. She is clearly passionate about her work and, like most academic scientists, very dedicated to the importance of understanding the world. Her specialization is in plant biology and she is especially interested in trees. She tells the listener in a very personal way about her life as a scientist and her friendship with her co-worker Bill, who she met as a graduate student and employed in her lab since she had her first university position. She writes about her own research and how she has been helped by him. Although she is married with a son, she devotes much more of the book to her life with Bill than she does to her marriage, although she does say how wonderful her husband is. But Lab Girl is about her life in the lab, and that has been with Bill. Much of the book is about the various escapades and near-fatal accidents they have experienced together. She tells a good story.
Jahren sets out her early life growing up in small-town Minnesota; her father worked in a community college, and ran a lab, and both her parents were scientifically minded. The book is dedicated to her mother. Jahren worked in a pharmaceutical lab for a while, and learned precision to preparing medications, and she soon went on to excel in her college work well enough to get into a doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first job after that was at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she gives the impression she had very little funding. She could not pay Bill enough for him to afford a place to live, and so he lived in his car or in the lab. They moved on to Johns Hopkins and then eventually onto the University of Hawaii. She describes much of her career as a struggle for funding, and being a woman made it all the more difficult because of the sexism endemic in much of the system.
It is curious that although Jahren also explains that she has bipolar disorder, she says much less about this. She briefly describes one manic episode she has had, set off by a medication she had to take due to an injury she suffered while working on her research in the field. She makes clear how serious the disorder is, but she says very little about how being bipolar has affected her work, her relationships with her colleagues and students, and her personal life. She does make it clear that treatment has got the disease under control though.
Lab Girl is an engrossing read, and the audiobook performance carries special resonance because Jahren does it herself. Some of her Minnesotan pronunciations are especially endearing. Her text does very well and highlighting the underfunding of science as well as some of the fascinating results about trees that modern research has uncovered. The book has a lot to offer on many fronts, and maybe at some other stage Jarhen will say more about her experience as an academic with a mental illness and the career challenges that has posed for her.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York