Lab Girl is a memoir by the plant scientist Hope Jahren. Hope Jahren sure can write. Indeed, her website is https://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com/. Not only can she write, you can tell when you read the book or her blog or her twitter feed that she must. She is a superstar communicator. You should stop reading this and go and read the book. But, here goes…
Writing. Most of a scientist’s day is spent writing. Writing grant proposals, writing journal articles, writing references for students. It is a lot of work. You don’t just write, you edit manuscripts written by students and colleagues. I’m telling you; it’s a LOT of work. Yet, some scientists can’t get enough. They write blog posts, they write popular science articles and some even write books. I wish even more scientists would write for the public. The scientific approach applied to world affairs, to politics, and to policy formulation would be such a welcome change from all the hand waving, the populism that drives hate speech, and the fake news we are experiencing today.
Wit. Hope Jahren is a funny and witty author. She is, nonetheless, dead serious about her research and will not tolerate any horsing around. She has a hard time in the lab as well as in life and she shares all of her troubles with us in a most heartfelt way. Her description of her failures are both self deprecating and encouraging. I felt like she wants to make sure the reader loves the science through the witticism despite the hardship.
Grit. While reading this book, I could not help but think about my favorite (fiction) book in the past 5-10 years: The Signature of All Things. Yes, it is by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray and Love fame. The Signature of All Things is an epic saga about Alba, who is a moss scientist. Like any moss scientist, Alba is patient. Alba has grit. Alba is in it for the long haul. Not only is Alba curious and asks questions, but she also knows that she must wait until all questions are answered. Alba perseveres. Sometimes, I think this is a trait of women scientist. We nurture our science. Hope Jahren is very patient, too. She says at the beginning of Chapter 8 “Establishing yourself as a scientist takes an awfully long time.” (This chapter is worth the admission price so I will ask you to go and read the book again.) To make sure her students learn to be patient, too, her first assignment to them is to label empty vials. Then, with Bill (read the book), they tell the new recruit that he did it all wrong. She sees two ways out for when you run into major obstacles: Come back the next day and start over. Or you can work an extra hour longer and “stay in the moment of what went wrong”. Clearly, Hope Jahren always chooses the second option and wants her students to do the same.
Science. It’s all about the science, you know. When all is said and done, Hope Jahren is a plant scientist. Her main goal in life and in writing this book is to understand (and explain) how plants communicate, how they grow, why they grow, how they sometimes don’t grow and wait and survive, why they sometimes don’t grow. The how and the why keep Hope Jahren going. The how and the why keep all of us going. Once you start asking the how and the why, you are a scientist. She says it best: “What comes first is a question, and you’re already there”.