Lab Girl

by

Hope Jahren

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Lab Girl: Part 1: Roots and Leaves Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Jahren spends her evenings in her father’s laboratory, playing with the scientific instruments she finds in the drawers. She particularly likes the slide rule, which she uses as a sword, imagining herself in the biblical story of Abraham, sacrificing his son Isaac. She plays with the silver nozzles of the air and gas lines, makes use of the miscellaneous tools she finds in drawers, and tests the pH of spit, water, root beer, and urine. Having the privilege to play with these grown-up instruments makes Jahren feel special, and contributes to the feeling that she and her father own the entire science building. Her father teaches her how to fix broken equipment, and she carefully sets out the items needed for the next day’s experiments in her father’s class.
Jahren traces her love of science back to her childhood, and specifically to the time she spent in the lab with her father. This was not a time of official “learning,” but rather an opportunity to play and explore, reinforcing Jahren’s belief that curiosity and enthusiasm fuel scientific research just as much as concrete knowledge of facts and figures. In addition, the fact that she is working with her father, and emulating him and his work, will be part of Jahren’s lifelong concern about her role as a woman in science.
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Jahren and her father walk home every night at 8 P.M. through the frozen landscape of small-town southern Minnesota, in complete silence. She notes that her family, like many Scandinavians, have developed the habit of not speaking to one another for long stretches of time. This is a trait they have inherited from their Viking ancestors, who emigrated from Norway in the 1880s—she notes that things must not have been going very well in Europe for them to move to Minnesota to work in the local slaughterhouse, so she can understand why they might not share much of their personal history.
Outside of the playful atmosphere of her father’s lab, Jahren depicts her childhood in Minnesota as cold, lonely, and empty of emotion. Although she relates this to her Scandinavian background, later in her life she will return to Norway to live, and will find comfort in a similar social and cultural atmosphere. This childhood experience also makes its mark on her social life as an adult, as she maintains a small circle of close friends.
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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 work for 42 years. Most of the people in town have lived there all their lives, as have their parents and grandparents: on her walk home with her father, Jahren passes the local school, where her teachers had once been her father’s students; the church where her parents met, married, and had their children baptized; and the office of the doctor who had delivered her and treated her every childhood ailment. Jahren cannot remember a time when she didn’t know all of the other children in the homes she passes on her walk, and it would only be years later, in college, that she realizes that the world is filled with people she doesn’t know.
This small-town upbringing is in direct contrast to Jahren’s life as an adult, in which she takes jobs around the country and conducts research across the globe. She often fears that she will have to return to her little town and settle there, surrounded by people she has known all her life, taking Part 1n the time-worn rituals that her parents and grandparents have taken Part 1n. Her love of science is paired with a desire to see and experience new things, which were not available to her as a child, and to escape the continuous loop of life in a small town.
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In addition to the community college, the slaughterhouse is one of the economic centers of the 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 train north to the city of Saint Paul, which left promptly at 8:23 P.M. every night. Jahren and her father can often hear the train leaving the station from the other side of town as they walk down the street to their house. Jahren notes in hindsight that while her fingers were so cold they would hurt, as they walked into her house, she prepared to face a different kind of cold.
While Jahren comes from a family of scientists and thinkers, they seem to be the outliers within this community, which is dominated by the meat industry. Her family is one of the only ones that is not employed by the slaughterhouse, and while Jahren does not mention this in her memoir, this may also have set her family apart from the others in her small town. While Jahren leaves for college, many of her classmates will stay and work for the slaughterhouse, as will their children.
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Every night when Jahren and her father get home, Jahren’s mother is always in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher loudly, signaling a lifelong anger that puzzles young Hope Jahren. As children do, she assumes it is her fault, and silently pledges to behave better in the future. Jahren’s mother is a housewife, tending to the garden and knitting warm items for the children for winter, but she had once been a science star, winning an honorable mention in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and going on to study chemistry at the University of Minnesota. She found it difficult to attend college while working to pay her way, so she ended up moving back to her hometown, married, had four children with him, and fully assumed the role of homemaker.
Jahren’s relationship with her mother is complicated: on one hand, she dedicates her memoir to her mother, signaling a deep connection and sense of obligation. On the other hand, Jahren spent most of her childhood feeling guilty for her mother’s frustration and dissatisfaction. Like many women of her generation, Jahren’s mother had once yearned for a college education and a career of her own, possibly in science. But while she was intellectually capable of succeeding, she was thwarted by the social and financial obstacles that kept many women from reaching their dreams.
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The elder Mrs. Jahren never gave up her dreams of a college degree, however, and once the children were in school, she re-enrolled and took correspondence courses through the University of Minnesota, studying literature rather than science this time. Her mother’s studies became a staple of Jahren’s childhood, as the girl was included in the painstaking work of reading and analysis. In between their work in the garden and other domestic tasks, Jahren and her mother would consult the Middle English dictionary, map out symbolism in Pilgrim’s Progress, listen to poetry by Carl Sandberg, and mull over the theories of Susan Sontag. All of her mother’s energy was not wasted on young Jahren, who followed in her mother’s footsteps “to make real the life that she deserved and should have had.” Jahren even briefly studied literature before declaring a major in science.
The fact that Jahren’s mother returned to college after the children were in school is inspirational, especially considering that her motives were purely intellectual. The time that Jahren spent with her mother studying literature would have a profound effect on the young girl, helping her respect literature and place it on the same plane as science. In addition, Jahren inherited her mother’s tenacity, which has helped her push past obstacles that might have seemed insurmountable to many other scientists. Although she considers herself much more like her father, Jahren’s motivation to succeed academically is definitely linked to her mother.
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Jahren describes science as the place where she belonged, because in her science classes growing up, she did things, rather than just talking in a classroom. She enjoyed working with her hands, and the work paid off much more quickly. She also found that her science professors prized the characteristics that her schoolteachers had previously found frustrating, such as her extreme persistence and perfectionism. Her science professors even accepted her despite her gender, and although Jahren had never heard a single story of a female scientist up to that point, she understood that it was her destiny to have her own lab, just as her father had. Her work in science reminded her of her joyful evenings as a child playing in her father’s laboratory.
Rather than just a subject to study, Jahren portrays science as an ethos—she feels drawn to the concrete and physical aspects of science, and believes that it complements her personality and academic tendencies. Jahren is a scientist in mind and soul. Unfortunately, she does not have any female role models in the sciences, and therefore will have to forge her own path, dealing with a lot of sexism along the way. Even the fact that she is accepted “despite” her gender is an early indicator that being a woman scientist will be an uphill battle.
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Now as an adult, Jahren has her own laboratory, and she considers it her refuge from the rest of the world. The unanswered phone calls and incomplete chores are of no importance once she enters her self-contained, windowless space that is dedicated to her work. She describes it as both immensely important work—where she pursues “the noble breakthrough”—and an extension of the fun she had in her father’s lab as a girl. She also notes that her lab is a place where not everything goes as planned, despite the fact that her publications include only the successful results; this clearing away of the imperfections of scientific work leaves Jahren with another story to tell, of all the “pain, pride, regret, fear love, and longing” that a scientist feels along the way.
Jahren is reflecting on her early ambitions from the perspective of a woman who has achieved her goals. While there were many obstacles along the way—many of which she will write about in this memoir—Jahren has now become the very role model she needed as a young woman. She is also extremely honest about the imperfections of her life outside of the lab, taking care not to contribute to an unattainable image of a working woman. In contrast to her scientific publications, this memoir will include all of the pitfalls and mistakes she has made.
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When Jahren turns 40 years old, after 14 years as a professor, she and her lab partner, Bill, finally create a machine that will work with a mass spectrometer, which is a major breakthrough in chemistry. This is three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation, designed for the forensic chemical analysis of terrorist attacks. It is not exactly Jahren’s passion, but the funding is more substantial than any she has received in the past, and she believes that she can work on this project and her plant biology work—her passion—in her off hours. They are coming to the end of their funding—in fact, Jahren has calculated the exact date on which they will run out of money for the project—when Bill announces that their experiment has worked.
As a scientist, Jahren is both pragmatic and overly ambitious: she applies for a grant that is more likely to be funded, because of its connection to anti-terrorism, but also believes that she can work on both projects simultaneously. This speaks to the tragic funding gap in the sciences, which Jahren will reiterate many times throughout her memoir, as well as the hard work that scientists do on a daily basis. Even with this double helping of work on their plates, she and her lab partner still make a major breakthrough.
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Jahren calculates that she must make approximately four near-miraculous discoveries per year for her work to be fully cost-effective. While the university pays her salary, nearly every other aspect of her work—from the notepads to the mass spectrometer itself to the salary of her lab partner and any assistants—must be raised by Jahren herself, from the federal government or private organizations, which become more elusive every year. As she mentioned, forensic chemical analysis work is not Jahren’s passion, but anti-terrorism work is much more likely to be funded than “science for knowledge,” as she calls it. The other issue with science funding is that experiments rarely work the first time around, and this one was no exception. Jahren details the issues they dealt with in terms of the chemical reaction, turning previously simple tasks into procedures that would take days to complete.
Jahren breaks down the costs and funding for science research, which helps to dispel the myth that scientists are rich or have plenty of funding for their work. She spends nearly as much time writing grant applications and sending out papers for publications as she does actually conducting research in the lab, which is a reality across the sciences. She also brings up the fact that for science to be well-funded by the government, it must result in something that will financially benefit the country, like a drug or a weapon. Jahren believes that her work is undervalued by the government agencies, despite its inherent value to her and her fellow scientists.
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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 worked as an effective team, with Jahren dreaming up bigger and better ideas and pitching them to potential funders, and Bill painstakingly focusing on the details to push them to success, and then Jahren writing up the final report, making the whole process look streamlined from the beginning. The two scientists triumphantly discussed what to name the apparatus they created, with Bill joking that they should call it “four hundred and eighty thousand dollars of taxpayer money.” Jahren tried to find the words to thank Bill for his hard work, but she knew she didn’t have to.
Jahren and her lab assistant, Bill, make a perfect pair of researchers, as she dreams up big ideas, sells them, and markets the finished product, while Bill is content to handle the finer details required for good research. This relationship is vital to both Jahren and Bill, as they support each other and share in the joys of discovery. Their close friendship is also clear in this passage, as they joke about the work they have put into this discovery, and Jahren does not need to say out loud that she appreciates his work, because he already knows this.
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Jahren has a specific tree she remembers from her childhood: a spruce tree that stood outside her window, which she would hug, climb, and talk to like a close friend. Her studies in science have led her to realize that just like her, the tree was once a child, a teenager, and an adult. Many years after Jahren left her childhood home, her tree “made a terrible mistake,” preparing for summer too early in the season, losing its branches in a snowstorm and forcing Jahren’s parents to cut it down. When Jahren heard this news from her parents, months later, it reminded her of the complicated nature of life, both plant and human. It also reminded her that the written word is the only way to keep from forgetting about important things that once existed, like her childhood spruce.
Once again, Jahren is using plants to guide her understanding of humans, and especially of herself. Other than the time she spent in her father’s lab, the spruce tree is one of her few positive memories of her childhood, and a link to the joys of that time. When her parents had to chop the tree down, that signaled the death of that particular connection, and reminded her of how tenuous those links can be. She sees literature and the written word in general as a way of preserving connections.
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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 known only to them, when the temperature and moisture and light are just right to begin to grow. More than half of them will die while waiting for this special opportunity, but a single tree will produce 250,000 new seeds per year. And when the seed does begin to grow, it sheds the hard, protective coating and stretches out into the world, ready to become what it is supposed to be.
Jahren uses the concept of the seed as a metaphor for her childhood and early adult years, when she was waiting for the right opportunity to bloom into the person she believed she should be. Her early years were marked by loneliness and isolation in her small town, and even as an undergraduate, she seemed to be waiting to blossom, both intellectually and socially.
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Jahren worked at least 20 hours per week during her entire undergraduate career, and more during school breaks, to supplement her scholarship to the University of Minnesota. One of her more memorable jobs was at the university hospital, where she began as a “runner,” transporting IV pain medications from the pharmacy to the nursing stations around the hospital. Jahren was well-suited to this position, as she needed the constant movement to satiate her boundless energy, and the relative isolation—she would go hours without speaking directly to anyone—gave her the time and mental space to think about her schoolwork.
Jahren worked around the clock as an undergraduate for two main reasons. First of all, she needed to make money to cover her tuition at the University of Minnesota, and did not want to have to drop out of college for financial reasons as her mother did. She also worked nonstop because she had an excess of energy and had trouble sleeping anyway, so she needed to keep herself occupied. This is one of the first signs of Jahren’s bipolar disorder and anxiety, which she will discover later in life.
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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 David Copperfield.” She would memorize passages from the novel during the day, allow her subconscious to work through their meaning as she walked medications around the hospital, and then go home after her shift and write her paper. This routine changed, however, when she was trained to “shoot bags,” or fill the intravenous bags with exactly the right amount and combination of mediation for the specified patient. She found value in this work, recognizing that this medication might hold off the progress of a tumor or give a patient just enough relief from their pain; this slowly turned into disenchantment, however, and when she received an offer to work in a research lab instead, she jumped at the chance.
As a scientist who also loves literature, Jahren found a profound connection between the assigned text in her English literature course and her evening work at the university hospital, bridging the gap between the metaphorical and the literal. And when she began working in the pharmacy lab, Jahren’s mind turned from her literature course towards a constant and profound analysis of the value of her work as a technician, and the importance of medication in the lives of the patients in the hospital. Jahren needed to feel that her work had some value, even if she was just keeping patients alive for another day.
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Jahren explains that the root takes a great risk, as it anchors itself to the ground, ending its chances to move around in search of a more perfect spot. And taking root will use all of the seed’s energy, with no opportunity to make new food until it grows a shoot, which could be days or even weeks later. But if it is successful, it will create a taproot, which will grow powerful enough to absorb gallons of water, intertwine with the plants around it to create an information network, and to regenerate even if its plant is ripped from the ground. Jahren references the acacia tree found along the Suez Canal, whose roots were found to be somewhere between 12 and 30 meters long, depending on the information source.
Continuing with the plant metaphor for her personal and professional development, Jahren introduces the process of taking root, in which a plant finally finds its place in the world, just as she was attempting to do as a young scientist. The tree’s root is immensely important to its success in life, despite the fact that it is invisible to most observers. Likewise, the choices that Jahren made as a young woman have had a significant impact on her success as a scientist, wife, and mother.
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Jahren was encouraged to obtain her Ph.D., and so the day after graduating from the University of Minnesota, she donated her winter clothes and hopped a plane to San Francisco, where she would begin her doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley. That was also where she met her lab partner and lifelong friend, Bill. Jahren was the graduate assistant on a field trip through California’s Central Valley, aiding the undergraduates in their study of the soil composition; Bill was a student on that trip, known for separating himself from the group and digging on his own, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket in the searing heat of the day. He and Jahren were drawn to each other’s dry sense of humor, and found themselves spending most of their free time together.
When she leaves the University of Minnesota, the college that every member of her family has attended, Jahren is finally departing from her childhood environment and taking a step towards independence. The fact that she donates her winter clothes before flying to California marks this move as permanent, signaling to Jahren that she has succeeded where her mother did not, and proving to herself that she can make it on her own, far from home. The fact that she meets Bill almost immediately is significant, as he becomes her new family, providing her with the support she needs on her own.
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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. Before the trip ended, Jahren approached her advisor and asked him to hire Bill in the lab, as he was clearly one of the smartest students she had met up to that point. Her advisor agreed, and as Jahren dropped off Bill after the trip was over, she offered him the job. He casually mentioned that he had nowhere else to go, so he would prefer to start immediately.
Jahren and Bill would have to put up with rumors about their relationship at times, but they were drown to one another by their shared love of science and nature, and their very similar dispositions. Both introverts, they found themselves separated from the group on that first field research trip, enjoying a comfortable silence. His semi-homelessness means that he will spend a lot of time at the lab, which will also bring him and Jahren together.
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Jahren returns to her explanation of a plant’s growing process. Once the seed has anchored itself in the ground, its energy shifts in the other direction, reaching up towards the sun, its source of energy and fuel. The plant begins to make leaves, which have only one job: to make sugar out of inorganic matter, something that only plants can do. The veins of the plant bring water to the leaf, where its is transformed, with the help of sunlight, into sugars, which are then transported back down to the roots and stored for later use. The plant then uses that sugar to grow deeper roots and absorb more water, reinvesting its energy in further growth.
The metaphor for Jahren’s developmental years continues, as she, too, has found somewhere appropriate to put down roots and begin to grow into the adult she has always dreamed she could be. She has found a support system in the form of her lab assistant Bill, and is able to focus all of her energy on her doctoral research. And like a plant, she is always working, rarely taking a moment to rest, reinvesting all of her time and energy in her research.
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For Jahren, the definition of a true scientist is one who creates her own experiments, generating new knowledge. She recalls the day she became a true scientist, marveling at the new piece of knowledge that she had generated via the research for her Ph.D. dissertation. She was studying the hackberry tree, and more specifically the hard seed it produces, to unlock the secrets of the climate between glacial periods in the Midwest of the United States. The first step in this larger project was to find out what a hackberry seed was made of. She dissected the pit, bathed it in acid to break down the harder parts, and examined them using an x-ray diffraction machine. She discovered that the pit was made of opal—and she was the first person in the world to discover this.
While for the most part, Jahren works to debunk many of the myths of the superiority of scientists, in this moment, she creates the important distinction of the “true” scientist. For her, the ability to devise her own experiments, and not simply contribute to another’s work, is what set her apart during her Ph.D. program. This is the first step towards being in complete control over a research lab, and thinking of science from a broader perspective, from start to finish, rather than simply focusing on the details of the experiments themselves.
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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 her lab. She felt like she should call to tell someone about her discovery, but had no one to call. Years later, she would get married and have a child, would mentor scores of students in her own laboratory, and most importantly for her, she would have a friend she considered closer than any family member, who would understand the importance of discoveries like these. But in that moment, Jahren cried. She then packed up her work and went back to her office, and shared her discovery with Bill, who turned off the radio he was listening to, and gave her his full attention.
In this first moment of discovery, when Jahren can finally consider herself a true scientist, she is plagued by all of the things that she left behind in pursuit of professional success. Jahren seems to have lost all of her family connections—it would seem that she would want to call her father, the one person capable of understanding the importance of this discovery—and feels some pangs of regret for this. But this feeling changes when she shares this information with Bill, and found that he offers the support she needs.
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Jahren received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the second part of her research, and spent the summer in Colorado, monitoring hackberry trees. Unfortunately for her research, that year, the hackberry trees did not bloom, and Jahren was panicking. She returned in the fall, feeling a distinct sense of failure. Bill’s suggestion, presumably made in jest, was to set one of the trees on fire as a threat to the others, or to go into the woods and shoot a BB gun at leaves and branches for an afternoon. Jahren did not take this advice, and used her failed summer to learn something about science: experiments, she explains, are not about making the subject fall in line with expectations. With this, she changed her mindset and began to see the world from the perspective of a plant.
Jahren’s trip to Colorado for field research acts as a counterbalance to her miraculous discovery, and illustrates very clearly that even “true” scientists—or perhaps especially true scientists—are not immune to failures, and that the more complex the science, the more likely that it will not yield perfect results the first time around. Bill is available to her as emotional support, and will be there for Jahren every time after this. But the most important lesson from this was to learn to think differently, which Jahren has done.
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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 of the plant to another—it moves water from the roots to the leaves, and brings sugar water back to the root. For trees, the stem is made of wood, which is an amazingly strong, durable material. In addition, a tree’s wood can tell its story: arborists read the rings of a trunk to learn how old a tree is and what might have happened during its development. Finally, wood is resilient, repairing and replacing broken limbs and branches as necessary. The monkeypod tree that stands in the middle of Honolulu might look as though it has achieved perfection, but if someone were to cut it down and read its story, they would see the history of branches lost and repaired.
Jahren returns to the topic of plant development, focusing on trees and the amazing qualities of wood as a material and as a tree’s stem. Mainly, Jahren portrays wood as a storyteller for the tree, in which every growth spurt and setback are marked down for an astute observer to read. Yet like a book, this information can only be read by opening up the tree and knowing what to look for; while the tree is standing, the wood continues to grow and repair itself, not showing any indications of its history or internal struggles.
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Jahren speeds through the four years of her Ph.D. program, and she and Bill both graduate in May 1996. Jahren had applied for jobs early, and by graduation she has secured a position at Georgia Tech. She and Bill spend graduation day together, in the absence of their own families, and once the ceremony is over, they head back to the lab and continue working. They spend the night filling glass tubes with carbon dioxide, which they would later use as references for their mass spectrometer. The work is tedious, but requires their full attention to fill each tube with exactly the right amount of gas. As they work together, Jahren begins daydreaming about her future, enjoying the thought of even the most mundane tasks as they pertain to her larger dream of running her own lab.
As they complete their degrees together, Jahren and Bill continue to serve as each other’s family, celebrating their successes together in the absence of any other familial connections. It is not surprising, then, that they return to the lab and continue working, as neither of them seems to have any other obligations or interests at this point, and the lab is where they feel most at home. In addition, as Jahren has secured her first job already, she is feeling enthusiastic about the future, imagining herself running her own lab in the very near future.
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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 wants to listen to the radio, and walks over to turn it on. Bill comments that he will listen to anything but NPR, as he has enough of his own problems to worry about, which leads Jahren to wonder about his life, about which she has learned very little in their time working together. As she is considering this, and fiddling with the knobs on the radio, she hears a earsplitting pop, and then can hear nothing for about five minutes after that. She looks around the lab, which is now covered in broken glass, and doesn’t see Bill—luckily, he jumped under a desk to shield himself from the explosion of glass.
Much of the work they do in the lab is mundane and tedious, yet at the same time it requires a great deal of concentration and focus. It can be easy to get distracted by other thoughts, especially as Jahren’s mind never seems to stop. She begins by thinking about her future at Georgia Tech, and then when she takes a break, she is thinking about Bill and his life, which she knows little about. It is in the middle of this daydreaming that something explodes in the lab, nearly injuring both Jahren and Bill.
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Jahren then realizes that she had been distracted while filling her glass tube, and had overfilled it with carbon dioxide, causing it to explode after she placed it on the counter. As she considers the damage around her, Bill ushers her outside for a cigarette break, helping her calm down. Jahren chews on the back of her hand, overtaken by anxiety and self-doubt. Bill comments that he once had a dog that chewed on her paws, but they loved her just the same. Back in the lab, they clean up the glass together, and Jahren asks Bill what he plans to do, now that he has graduated. He jokes that he will live in a hole in his parents’ backyard, but Jahren asks him—in all seriousness—if he will come with her to Atlanta to work in his lab.
A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Jahren is disappointed to realize that she was the cause of the disaster in her lab, and that she could have avoided it by focusing on the work at hand, rather than daydreaming. It is in this moment that Bill fulfills his role as her closest friend and emotional support, as he calmly ushers her out of the lab and reminds her that she is still a competent scientist. Jahren realizes quickly that she needs Bill in Atlanta, as both a lab partner and a friend.
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Jahren moves out to Atlanta first, dropping Bill off with his parents in Southern California along the way. She meets Bill’s father, an Armenian filmmaker who spent his adult life documenting the genocide in his home country. Jahren then embarks on her career as a science professor. After teaching class, she orders supplies for her new lab, and generally prepares for Bill’s arrival in January. When he arrives, Jahren drives to the airport in Atlanta, and finds herself standing at the baggage claim—the wrong one, in fact—in a daze, with no recollection of how she has gotten to that point.
This is a significant moment of transition for both Jahren and Bill, as they prepare for a new phase of their partnership. She meets Bill’s father, which helps her understand who Bill is as a person and deepens their friendship immensely. The time before Bill arrives in Atlanta is a whirlwind for Jahren, but when she picks him up from the airport, it is already clear that the stress of the first few months has had a negative effect on her mental health.
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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 shows him her prescription for lorazepam. As they leave the airport, Jahren offers to let Bill stay on her couch until he finds a place, but he is unconcerned about where he sleeps—he wants to go straight to see the lab. Despite the fact that it is a dingy and abandoned space, Bill can see its potential and begins planning immediately. With that, the two get down to the business of setting up the first Jahren lab.
Bill notices the changes in Jahren’s behavior, and she is forced to admit that she is suffering from anxiety, though she attempts to be casual about it, joking about her prescription medications. As always, Bill takes her suffering in stride, and transitions the conversation to the lab, which is where they have always thrived. He is as excited as she is to create the lab of Jahren’s dreams and ambitions.
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Trees have developed ways to be in more than one place at the same time. Willows, for example, will strengthen their lower branches and then allow them to drop off; one or two of those branches will then replant themselves, becoming the trunk of a new willow tree, genetically identical to the original. There is a hybrid strain of the horsetail plant, known as ferrissii, that is sterile and can only replicate itself by sending out branches to be replanted, like the willow. In this way, 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.
Jahren ends the first section of her memoir by commenting on trees’ amazing ability to travel, despite being rooted in place. This cycle of growth, loss, and replanting is very similar to the semi-transient life of an academic—Jahren must be ready to move across the country to take on a job, starting her life anew in a different climate and culture, in order to eventually achieve professional success.
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