Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

In Lab Girl, author and scientist Hope Jahren mixes science and biography to tell a fascinating story about her life, her work and the very special relationship she has with her lab partner, Bill.

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Dr. Jahren’s personal anecdotes and experiences as a woman in scientific academia are interesting in and of themselves. By weaving in related, and understandable, examples of plant science, she creates a truly unique piece of nonfiction.

Lab Girl begins with a story of the author’s childhood. It sets the stage by giving her father, a science professor, credit for her career choice and her family blame for her insecurities about being loveable and accepted. But most of Lab Girl is about Dr. Jahren’s life as an academic scientist, responsible for teaching college students, as well as building labs and conducting meaningful research. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle, but it seems like a true calling for Jahren and her lab partner, Bill. These two are kindred spirits and the fact that two such quirky people found each other as well as a profession that so thoroughly suits them is nearly miraculous. It’s one of my favorite things about her story.

Jahren is candid about very personal topics, like family dynamics, marriage and even mental illness. She’s a very complex person with intense drive that seems to be fueled by insecurities as well as something that’s just innately hardwired within her. She’s also a very good writer. With Lab Girl, she’s created a very engaging and even educational book. Not only does she skillfully tell her own story, but she’s also able to make trees interesting. That takes talent. Lab Girl a very good book!

Have you read Lab Girl? What did you think?

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

  1. I was very excited to join you in this month’s “Kind of Like a Book Club” and read a book which had already caught my eye. Being from a family of female science majors and one genuine scientist, I thought there might be some kindred thoughts to relate to. I had no idea botany and geobiology could be so poetic! That’s how I found Jahren’s passionate descriptions of plant and earth science. If only my one botany class in college had been so intriguing!

    From a structural standpoint, I enjoyed the layout of the book. Short chapters describing brief lessons in science are followed by longer chapters containing personal stories that somehow relate to those scientific facts. I found the author to be very creative and introspective in accomplishing this. I did find myself surprised a few times by new facts about her life casually and unexpectantly thrown out there without much explanation. Jahren’s friend and colleague, Bill, definitely took priority in this memoir of her life. I questioned why that was and wondered if the author might have some feelings of guilt for having leaned on this person for most of her adult life. Is this book somehow a way of repaying him for so much of his time, making up for years of little pay, long hours and a seemingly lonely life? Or were they both just called for such extreme dedication to scientific research, happy in a way only such personalities can appreciate and symbiotically able to live such a life because of the other? Either way, Jahren shares many personal human qualities and emotions which made me feel that I know her, I learned much from her lessons and stories and I can appreciate many of her challenges. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will recommend it to others with an interest in science.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This book represents in the best way why I love being part of a book club — it’s a book that I wouldn’t have read on my own due to the cover and subject matter, but I’m so glad that I did!

    The memoir was refreshingly unique from others I have read in three ways:
    1) Focussed on the author’s professional life as a plant scientist
    2) The central relationship described is platonic/professional and, while quirky, isn’t dysfunctional.
    3) the inclusion of the short, eye-opening plant chapters.

    Overall, the book was well-written, but at times the writing style or facts were inconsistent. (e.g. She mentions that Bill is guaranteed an annual salary when coming to Hawaii with her, then later voices concern about his financial future.)

    The parts of the book that remain with me having read it a month ago are:
    – Passage where she is sitting at a table looking out the window, dreaming of a future granddaughter — and hoping that someday her granddaughter will read this
    – Telling her son, “It takes a long time to turn into what you’re supposed to be” p 265
    – After describing an enjoyable afternoon and evening in her role of mother/wife, she heads to the lab on her bike to use “the other half of my heart.”
    – Her request at the end of the book to give the gift of a tree, perhaps an oak, to check it daily for the first three years, and put $5/mo aside to care for it when it is sick in 10-20 years.

    I give “Lab Girl” a rating of 4/5 stars, “highly recommend.” (And in fact, I’ve told quite a few people about it!)


    • Dana – thanks for your comments and I’m so glad you liked the book. I really like your takeaways, especially the “it takes a long time to turn into what you’re supposed to be” quote.


  3. Pingback: 10 Fascinating Nonfiction Books that Will Leave You Wanting More | Book Thoughts from Bed

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