Lab Girl

by

Hope Jahren

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Hope Jahren Character Analysis

The author and narrator of Lab Girl, Hope Jahren is an award-winning paleobiologist and research professor. She conducts her research with her lab partner, Bill, whom she met as a graduate student and with whom she has a close, platonic relationship. Jahren grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota, where she was a precocious student, graduating high school a year early to study science at the University of Minnesota, going on to receive her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and then immediately taking a teaching position at Georgia Tech. While Jahren has had a very successful professional career, she discusses the sexism inherent in the male-dominated field of science, and the personal and systemic obstacles that she had to overcome. For example, in response to mistreatment by her department chair at Georgia Tech during her pregnancy—she was essentially banned from her own lab while pregnant with her son, as her male colleagues deemed her a liability—Jahren and her mathematician husband Clint left in search of a more inclusive workplace, taking up positions at the University of Hawaii. She also writes about her struggles with mental illness, covering some of her earliest symptoms of anxiety and bipolar disorder, describing a manic episode in minute detail, and discussing the medical treatment she finally received. Overall, Jahren is open and honest, giving readers a glimpse into the personal side of a brilliant scientist, and demonstrating that even very intelligent and successful people are prone to self-doubt, mistakes, and fear of failure.

Hope Jahren Quotes in Lab Girl

The Lab Girl quotes below are all either spoken by Hope Jahren or refer to Hope Jahren. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Life Cycles Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Knopf edition of Lab Girl published in 2016.
Prologue Quotes

Guess what? You are now a scientist. People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They’re wrong […] What comes first is a question, and you’re already there. It’s not nearly as involved as people make it out to be.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Roots and Leaves Quotes

As much as I desperately wanted to be like my father, I knew that I was meant to be an extension of my indestructible mother: a do-over to make real the life that she deserved and should have had. I left high school a year early to take a scholarship at the University of Minnesota—the same school that my mother, father, and all of my brothers had attended.

Related Symbols: Minnesota
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more […].

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

I started working in a research laboratory in order to save my own life. To save myself form the fear of having to drop out and from then being bodily foreclosed upon by some boy back home. From the small-town wedding and the children who would follow, who would have grown to hate me as I vented my frustrated ambitions on them.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Related Symbols: Minnesota, Labs
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

“Hey, you guys! Want a cold one?”

“No, I don’t. That stuff you are drinking tastes like piss.”

“Well, I don’t really like beer, but that stuff does seem pretty awful.”

“Jean Genet wouldn’t have even stolen that shit.”

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker), Bill (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

I was convinced that the trees were giving me a sign and that my future career was unraveling. I was panicking, picturing myself on the assembly line, trimming the jowls off of dismembered hog heads, one after the other, for six hours a day, just as the mother of my childhood friend had done for nearly twenty years.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Related Symbols: Minnesota
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

For all the time that we spent together, Bill had mostly remained a mystery to me. I had been around him enough to know that he didn’t do drugs, skip class, or litter on the street—incongruously enough, considering his disaffected comportment—but I didn’t know anything beyond that.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker), Bill
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Wood and Knots Quotes

Why are they together, the tree and the fungus? We don’t know. The fungus could certainly live very well alone almost anywhere, but it chooses to entwine itself with the tree over an easier and more independent life […] perhaps the fungus can somehow sense that when it is part of a symbiosis, it is also not alone.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

Thus splitters and lumpers are both productive only when forced into bickering collaboration, and though together they produce great maps, they rarely return from field trips on speaking terms.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker), Bill
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

I learned that female professors and departmental secretaries are the natural enemies of the academic world, as I was privileged to overhear discussions of my sexual orientation and probable childhood traumas from ten to ten-thirty each morning through the paper-thin walls of the break room located adjacent to my office.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

While this great cosmic fire hose bathes you in epiphanies, you are overtaken by your urgent need to document them and thus are an inspired manual for all perfect tomorrows. Unfortunately, this is when reality closes ranks and conspires to thwart you in earnest. Your hands shake such that you can’t hold a pen. You pull out a tape recorder and push “record” and fill cassette after cassette.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 145-146
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Flowers and Fruit Quotes

The discovery of trees that could live in the dark is akin to a discovery of humans that could live underwater.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

Look at those guys. I’m going to do this job for thirty more years, work as hard as any of them, accomplish just as much or more, and not one of them will ever look me straight in the eye like I belong here.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker), Bill
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

I discover within a second context that when something just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work—and similarly, there are some things that you just can’t screw up.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker), Clint
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

“C’mon, Bill, you’re with us now. Why don’t you drive?”

Related Characters: Clint (speaker), Hope Jahren, Bill
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

A manic-depressive pregnant woman cannot take Depakote or Tegretol or Seroquel or lithium or Rsiperdal or any of the other things that she’s been taking on a daily basis for years in order to keep herself from hearing voices and banging her head against the wall. Once her pregnancy is confirmed she must cease all medications quickly (another known trigger) and stand on the train tracks just waiting for the locomotive to hit.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

I know that I am supposed to be happy and excited. I am supposed to be shopping and painting and talking lovingly to the baby inside me. I am supposed to celebrate the ripening fruit of love and luxuriate in the fullness of my womb. But I won’t do any of this.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

When I wake, I hold my baby and I think about how he is my second opal that I can forever draw a circle around and point to as mine.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker), Jahren’s Son
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:

While I am too impulsive and aggressive to think of myself as a proper woman, I will also never fully shake this dull, false belief that I am something less than a man.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker), Jahren’s Son
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

I got out my bike and looked up through the warm, tropical sky, into the terminal coldness of space, and saw light that had been emitted years ago from unimaginably hot fires that were still burning on the other side of the galaxy. I put on my helmet and rode to the lab, ready to spend the rest of the night using the other half of my heart.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Related Symbols: Labs
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

It looks as if the bigger potatoes of the future might feed more people while nourishing them less. I don’t have an answer for that one.

Related Characters: Hope Jahren (speaker)
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Lab Girl LitChart as a printable PDF.
Lab Girl PDF

Hope Jahren Character Timeline in Lab Girl

The timeline below shows where the character Hope Jahren appears in Lab Girl. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
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People always ask Hope Jahren why she doesn’t study the ocean, since she lives in Hawaii. She responds that the... (full context)
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Jahren then asks readers to look out their windows, asking them what they see. Most people... (full context)
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Jahren looks at a lot of leaves, and asks a lot of questions about them. She... (full context)
Part 1: Roots and Leaves
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Jahren spends her evenings in her father’s laboratory, playing with the scientific instruments she finds in... (full context)
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Jahren and her father walk home every night at 8 P.M. through the frozen landscape of... (full context)
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Located 100 miles south of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Jahren’s town is the home of the community college where her father would go on to... (full context)
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...town, as most of the local families are employed there or somehow associated with it. Jahren notes that it processed around 20,0000 animals per day, whose meat was placed on a... (full context)
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Every night when Jahren and her father get home, Jahren’s mother is always in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher... (full context)
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The elder Mrs. Jahren never gave up her dreams of a college degree, however, and once the children were... (full context)
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Jahren describes science as the place where she belonged, because in her science classes growing up,... (full context)
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Now as an adult, Jahren has her own laboratory, and she considers it her refuge from the rest of the... (full context)
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When Jahren turns 40 years old, after 14 years as a professor, she and her lab partner,... (full context)
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Jahren calculates that she must make approximately four near-miraculous discoveries per year for her work to... (full context)
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This struggle came to an end, however, when Bill entered Jahren’s office to announce “the motherfucker works” and handed her the paperwork to prove it. They... (full context)
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Jahren has a specific tree she remembers from her childhood: a spruce tree that stood outside... (full context)
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Seeds are very good at waiting, Jahren explains. They may wait one, 100, or even over 2,000 years for a special moment... (full context)
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Jahren worked at least 20 hours per week during her entire undergraduate career, and more during... (full context)
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Based on her experience in the hospital, Jahren decided to write her English term paper on “The Use and Meaning of ‘Heart’ Within... (full context)
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Jahren explains that the root takes a great risk, as it anchors itself to the ground,... (full context)
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Jahren was encouraged to obtain her Ph.D., and so the day after graduating from the University... (full context)
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While the other students giggled and gossiped about the possible romantic relationship they saw blossoming, Jahren and Bill developed a strong platonic bond that would last beyond the California field trip.... (full context)
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Jahren returns to her explanation of a plant’s growing process. Once the seed has anchored itself... (full context)
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For Jahren, the definition of a true scientist is one who creates her own experiments, generating new... (full context)
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This discovery would usher in a host of conflicting feelings for Jahren, who was completely alone in Berkeley, far from her family, with few connections outside of... (full context)
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Jahren received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the second part of her research,... (full context)
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Plants contain three parts, Jahren explains: leaves, stems, and roots. The stem’s job is to move water from one part... (full context)
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Jahren speeds through the four years of her Ph.D. program, and she and Bill both graduate... (full context)
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As she finishes filling a tube, Jahren looks up at Bill, who is also fixated on his work. Jahren asks if he... (full context)
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Jahren then realizes that she had been distracted while filling her glass tube, and had overfilled... (full context)
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Jahren moves out to Atlanta first, dropping Bill off with his parents in Southern California along... (full context)
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Bill comments that she looks different, and Jahren informs him that she is one of the 25 million Americans with anxiety and later... (full context)
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...there are ferrissii plants from California to Georgia—tracing a path similar to that of Dr. Jahren, the newest professor of science at Georgia Tech. (full context)
Part 2: Wood and Knots
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Plants thrive in the American South, Jahren explains, thanks to hot and humid summers and temperate winters. The life cycle for trees... (full context)
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Jahren returns to the story of her life as a new professor: she and Bill are... (full context)
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...minerals. They work together while remaining physically separate. No one knows why this happens, but Jahren wonders if the fungus feels less alone when engaged in this symbiotic relationship. (full context)
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Jahren and Bill have decided to teach their soil class differently from the way it has... (full context)
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...only soil scientists would find remarkable—while most travelers would not take much note of it, Jahren and Bill consider it soil nirvana for its rust-red oxidized strip of soil. They arrive... (full context)
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...as a clear indication of whether or not they would enjoy majoring in soil science. Jahren considers these trips a more effective teaching tool than classroom time, and Bill is both... (full context)
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...to Monkey Jungle at 1 A.M., and decides to camp out in the parking lot. Jahren wakes in the middle of the night to find a police officer shining his light... (full context)
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Jahren notes the similarities to their research lab, with many of the monkeys performing animal versions... (full context)
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Jahren describes a deciduous tree’s efforts to grow new leaves during the spring and summer as... (full context)
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Jahren’s work is of relatively low priority, as it will not result in anything marketable for... (full context)
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Jahren breaks down this number even further: because her work focuses on the past development of... (full context)
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...through agriculture, industry, and exploration, they have opened up spaces where only weeds can thrive. Jahren notes that in every space modified by humans, invasive species are taking the place of... (full context)
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After her trip to Monkey Jungle with her group of undergraduates, Jahren realizes that she has found her people within the lab, and begins to really feel... (full context)
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Jahren’s attempts at romance are also difficult at this point, as the men she dates are... (full context)
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When Jahren begins to have car trouble, she trades it in for a used Jeep and moves... (full context)
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Early one morning, Bill calls Jahren to inform her that he has shaved off all of his long, glossy black hair.... (full context)
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Jahren admits that it made her uncomfortable to think of Bill cutting off a part of... (full context)
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...of which is that Bill is desperately dehydrated upon waking in the morning. Some days, Jahren finds Bill in the lab as early as 7:30 A.M., consuming as much water as... (full context)
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...prove that he does indeed work at the university, and the security guards even call Jahren to confirm that he is her employee and to let her know that they found... (full context)
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Back in the lab, Bill and Jahren discuss the fact that he would probably be a prime suspect for nearly any kind... (full context)
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...not sharing any information about his own life. And he rarely shares those stories with Jahren, with the exception of a few of the best. For example, one student named Karen... (full context)
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Manic episodes are overwhelming and visceral, Jahren explains, and filled with the sound of blood rushing through her head, so loud that... (full context)
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During these manic episodes, Jahren is overtaken by the most intense need to write, to document her every thought, but... (full context)
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In the hospital, Jahren meets a doctor who informs her that she does not have to live this way,... (full context)
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Jahren recounts one of her manic episodes, which was sparked by the poison ivy medication she... (full context)
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When Jahren returned to the lab, days later, Bill informed her that he had secured the van... (full context)
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As they leave Colorado, an undergraduate named Teri is driving the van, and Jahren decides not to buckle her seatbelt, despite the fact that she is quite sure Teri... (full context)
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...the one who crashed the van, and she can’t just desert everyone at this point. Jahren is touched by this, and it dawns on her that Bill is her family, and... (full context)
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Jahren recounts the story of a major battle during the 1980s—between plants and insects. In 1977,... (full context)
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...to avoid destruction by the caterpillars, which eventually saved the forest by the late 1980s. Jahren describes this as an example of trees caring about each other, and working together against... (full context)
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Jahren describes her early years in academia as “a long, slow academic train wreck,” because she... (full context)
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Jahren began to fear that she would lose her lab and no longer be a scientist,... (full context)
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Things got better for Jahren: she lived in Georgia for another six months, when she got a job at Johns... (full context)
Part 3: Flowers and Fruit
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...large as Pennsylvania; this process is even more dramatic in the developing world. Baltimore, where Jahren moved to work at Johns Hopkins, has the fewest number of trees of any city... (full context)
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Jahren and Bill were on their way to creating a bigger, better Jahren lab at Johns... (full context)
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As they packed up the supplies, Jahren kept a running tab of the hundreds of dollars that they would save by taking... (full context)
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Jahren and Bill are spending the summer on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada, and it feels... (full context)
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Jahren and Bill are on the island with 10 paleontologists from the University of Pennsylvania, who... (full context)
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...bright neon tents of their campsite, so they are in no danger of getting lost. Jahren mentions how the other researchers will never see her work as legitimate, and Bill is... (full context)
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When Bill admits that he never went to prom, Jahren tells him that he should make up for it on the spot—they’re in the middle... (full context)
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When she was 32, Jahren met Clint at a barbecue, and decided that he was the most beautiful man she... (full context)
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Jahren’s love for Clint did not mean that she couldn’t live without him—she had her own... (full context)
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...relationship progressed quickly: within weeks, Clint left his job in DC and moved in with Jahren in Baltimore, taking a job at Johns Hopkins as well. He was a mathematician, and... (full context)
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The summer after they met, the couple took a trip to Norway, one of Jahren’s favorite places. And just as she had envisioned it in her fantasies, she and Clint... (full context)
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When they arrived at Bill’s house, Jahren announced that she and Clint had gotten married, and Bill’s main concern was whether or... (full context)
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...exactly the same S shape, many show a decline in growth just before flowering. When Jahren shows her students the S shape, they are confused, wondering why a plant would stop... (full context)
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For Jahren, pregnancy is the most difficult part of her life, for more than one reason. She... (full context)
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When Jahren hits the magic 26-week mark, and is able to resume her mediations, she begins to... (full context)
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Later that day, Clint comes to Jahren’s office with some devastating news: Walter has requested that she not come into the building... (full context)
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Now that she cannot return to the lab, Jahren has plenty of time to think about the arrival of the baby. But she is... (full context)
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One evening, Jahren sneaks back into her lab after everyone else has gone home, and sits with Reba... (full context)
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Once the students leave, Jahren is given an epidural for the pain, and begins labor, but when the baby’s head... (full context)
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...maple trees do this for the saplings that grow nearby, helping them survive another year. Jahren notes that parents cannot do everything for their children, but they do everything they can. (full context)
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Jahren is living in Norway with Clint and her son, on a Fulbright grant to study... (full context)
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After the birth of her son, Jahren’s professional life somehow got easier, and she began to receive grants from the National Science... (full context)
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One morning, Jahren woke to an email from Bill, informing her that his father had died. Jahren responded... (full context)
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There was so much more that Jahren wanted to say to Bill, about how he was the fulfillment of his father’s dreams... (full context)
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...it, and began to get lost in the narrow, winding roads of the city. Suddenly, Jahren heard a crash, and looked over to see Bill’s window smashed, though he seemed to... (full context)
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...and breakfast, parked, and began to hike to the highest point they could find together. Jahren noticed that Bill still seemed weighted down, not free and content as he usually was... (full context)
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...himself, and that having a parent die makes him feel all alone in the world. Jahren wanted to tell him that he would never be alone, that he had friends that... (full context)
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Jahren asked Bill if he had any vials with him, because the moss on the top... (full context)
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...that they did not have the appropriate permits to take their samples out of Ireland. Jahren did not think they needed permits to get the samples to Norway, but she was... (full context)
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While Jahren stewed over the 60 hours of work that they had lost, Bill reminded her that... (full context)
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Whenever they had a new lab assistant to break in, Bill and Jahren would first give him hundreds of vials to label, using complex codes. They would then... (full context)
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Jahren’s son also has his favorite tree, a foxtail palm that he regularly hits with a... (full context)
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Jahren was worried that she would not be able to love her son enough, but now... (full context)
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Jahren realizes that she may die before this theoretical granddaughter is born, but she still holds... (full context)
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One morning as Jahren entered the lab, Bill greeted her with news of one of their specimens, known as... (full context)
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Plant C6 was demonstrating to Jahren that he had some level of volition beyond what was programmed for him in his... (full context)
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Jahren and Bill went to Whole Foods for lunch, and ended up making a series of... (full context)
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As they play in the sand, Jahren’s son asks if there are animals so small they are invisible to humans, and Jahren... (full context)
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Jahren brings her son home and makes dinner just as Clint arrives home from work as... (full context)
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Jahren’s son asks if she will be going back to the lab that night, and Jahren... (full context)
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Jahren finds something very sad about ending a plant experiment. She used to be able to... (full context)
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Jahren realizes that she is missing her mammogram, which is already three years overdue, and that... (full context)
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Jahren worries about Bill, however—he seems to have missed out on having a wife and kids,... (full context)
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People still wonder about the nature of Jahren’s relationship with Bill, as they spend so much time together, have intertwined their finances and... (full context)
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As Jahren and Bill discuss their plans for the future, they begin to recount stories of past... (full context)
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Bill knows about Jahren’s writing—she writes poems and stashes them in the glove compartment of her car, types out... (full context)
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In some ways, Jahren vows not to take her job too seriously, especially because she often feels like an... (full context)
Epilogue
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...plants are not like humans—they are different in many significant ways, and the more that Jahren realizes this, the more she knows that humans cannot project their consciousness onto plants. In... (full context)
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Jahren then directs herself to her readers again, asking that they do one thing for her:... (full context)
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Finally, Jahren notes that each reader will have his or her own tree. She asks readers to... (full context)