I found Lab Girl (by Hope Jahren) helpful for understanding the experience of academics in the sciences, both graduate students and faculty, especially those involved in labs. I wasn’t sure, though, what to make of the interspersed chapters on plant biology, as fascinating as they were. They did provide a metaphor for understanding the rest of the book: “People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.” (18)

At times, though, these interspersed chapters on biology felt like they got in the way of the story I wanted to hear more about, even as much as Jahren’s telling us of the biology of trees is as much a part of her story as all the (mis)adventures that she had. Her story was unique: “there’s still no journal where I can tell the story of how my science is done with both the heart and the hands.” (20) Nor can she speak fully of all the non-successes that obviously don’t make it into journals. Instead she notes that “I have become proficient at producing a rare species of prose capable of distilling ten years of work by five people into six published pages, written in a language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks. This writing relates the details of my work with the precision of a laser scalpel, but its streamlined beauty is a type of artifice, a size-zero mannequin designed to showcase the glory of a dress that would be much less perfect on a real person.” (20)

The book was also helpful in providing insights into some of the unseen challenges of academic, especially that of science professors (and those who direct labs). She notes how, while we might expect knowledge and research to be the hardest questions that scientists face, funding is actually the biggest stress:

“Next time you meet a science professor, ask her if she ever worries that her findings might be wrong. If she worries that she chose an impossible problem to study, or that she overlooked some important evidence along the way. If she worries that one of the many roads not taken was perhaps the road to the right answer that she’s still looking for. Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: “Money.” ” (124-5)

She also talks about the challenges and loneliness that she experienced, particularly as a female in her profession. Despite being someone who won some prominent awards (and was on the tenure track at 26 already!), funding was a significant problem for at least ten years. She also speaks about being taken advantage of by another lab in the building, of being yelled at a conference presentation, of being ignored socially at conferences by the senior scientists in her field. She also notes about how hard when her life went against a lot of societal norms, especially what is expected of females:

“I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother – or because I felt like nobody’s daughter – or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout. I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known. In the years to come, I would create a new sort of normal for myself within my own laboratory. I would have a brother close than any of my siblings, someone I could call any hour of the day or night. . . I would nurture a new generation of students, some of whom were just hungry for attention, and a very few who would live up to the potential that I saw in them.” (71-2)

Despite all the challenges, there is a lot of hope in the book: the community that she builds, the grace and acceptance that she presents, and the quiet presence of God:

“My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all the things that I am getting done. . . My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am. . . . My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. . . And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.” (19)

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