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A scientist finds her place

Lab Girl

Hope Jahren
Knopf
2016
300 pp.
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Age Range: Young Adult

Grade Level: 9-12

Growing up in a Norwegian community in rural Minnesota, Hope Jahren discovered her love for scientific inquiry in her father’s laboratory at the local community college. Today, she lives with her family in Mauna Loa, where she runs her own laboratory at the University of Hawaii, studying how plants interact with their environment. Lab Girl is a fascinating and at times harrowing account of her life’s journey so far.

Jahren tells of her battle with manic depression, madcap road trips to conferences, and field study sites, the deep friendship with her lab partner Bill, and the uphill struggle to succeed in a field of academic research that receives little funding. But she also writes of the wonders of the natural world and the thrill of her first scientific discovery, when she “finally knew what real research was like.”

The book is interspersed with short chapters that explain the meager chance of survival of individual plant seeds, the risks that a root takes as it grows from a seed, how trees can “remember their childhood,” and how they survive freezing temperatures in winter. Plants emerge as active agents that shape their environment, and Jahren never stops asking new questions about them. For example, standing on a hill in Ireland, she recognizes that the ground is as wet there as in the valley and immediately starts an experiment to test whether mosses are responsible for keeping the high ground moist.

Jahren writes that she became a scientist because, in her heart, she was never anything else. Her love for science and the tenacity with which she has pursued her goals are a true inspiration.