Lab Girl

Lab Girl Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Hope Jahren's Lab Girl. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren was born in the small town of Austin, in southwestern Minnesota, to a professor father and a homemaker mother. As a child, she spent much of her free time in her father’s laboratory at the local community college, and tending to the garden with her mother. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1991, going on to receive her Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1996. She has worked at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Hawaii; she now lives in Oslo, Norway, with her husband and son, where she works as a professor at the University of Oslo. Her memoir, Lab Girl, was published in 2016, while she was in Hawaii.
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Historical Context of Lab Girl

Published in 2013, Lab Girl is set mainly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Hope Jahren was studying, and later researching and teaching science at the college level. While the number of women in science is slowly increasing, women are still in the minority in the field. While women earn more than half of all bachelor’s degrees, they make up about 39% of degrees in the sciences and only 15% of engineering degrees at the undergraduate level. Those numbers decrease in graduate programs—women account for 24% of chemistry and 11% of physics Ph.D. degrees awarded—and in faculty positions, where only one in ten science professors is female. Jahren’s anecdotes about systemic imbalances, lack of financial support, and mistreatment of working mothers are all supported by ongoing research by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Other Books Related to Lab Girl

Lab Girl has been compared to the work of Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks, whose popular science writing has effectively changed the way the general public interacts with the scientific world. However, the interweaving of science writing and personal struggle in Lab Girl brings to mind scientific memoirs like Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s The Sky is Not the Limit, Mary Leakey’s autobiographical Disclosing the Past, and Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got its Spots. In addition, readers looking for women’s voices in science might try the novels of Sy Montgomery, whose books Search for the Golden Moon Bear, The Good Good Pig, and Soul of an Octopus, as well as Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk and Juli Berwald’s Spineless, all of which connect personal experience with scientific discovery.
Key Facts about Lab Girl
  • Full Title: Lab Girl: A Stories of Trees, Science, and Love
  • When Written: 2010s
  • Where Written: Hawaii
  • When Published: 2016
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir, science writing
  • Setting: United States and Norway
  • Climax: Jahren finally sets up the very first Jahren Lab in Atlanta.
  • Antagonist: Sexism in the sciences
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for Lab Girl

Manicure Monday. In November 2013, Jahren made a bold statement about women in science simply by posting a photo of her hands on Twitter. Seventeen Magazine posted a hashtag, #manicuremonday, requesting that young women post images of their manicured hands; Jahren posted a photo of her hands—clean but not manicured—holding a beaker in her lab. She used Seventeen’s hashtag, of course, but added that her goal was to “contrast real #Science hands against what @seventeenmag says our hands should look like. All nails welcome.” Her rebellion against this traditional image of femininity prompted many other women to post images of them working with their hands, manicured or not.

More Than Just a Lab Girl. In addition to writing a bestselling novel, Hope Jahren is one of the most respected scientists in the United States. She is one of only four people—and the only woman—to receive two Young Scientist Awards from the Geological Society of America. She has received three Fulbright fellowships for her research, and in 2016, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.