Lab Girl is Hope Jahren’s memoir, tracing her trajectory from a curious child in her father’s lab to her career as a successful science researcher, wife, and mother. Jahren grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota, where she would spend her evenings playing in her father’s science laboratory at the local community college. Even at such a young age, Jahren viewed the lab as a sanctuary, and felt more comfortable there than she did in her own home. She describes her family as distant and unemotional: Jahren and her father would walk home together each night in silence, and her mother always seemed to be frustrated and angry. This frustration may have stemmed from the fact that the elder Mrs. Jahren was forced to drop out of college for financial reasons, returned to her hometown, got married, and raised four children.
Jahren admits that she felt like she needed to complete her mother’s unfinished business, and so she attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in science. She worked hard in college, taking classes and studying during the day, and working at the university hospital all night. This round-the-clock activity was fueled partly by a desire to succeed, and partly by her chronic insomnia. After working at the hospital for a few months—where she was tasked with the painstaking work of filling intravenous bags with different medications—Jahren began to work in one of the science labs on campus, bringing her back to her most beloved space. Encouraged by her professors, Jahren decided to attend graduate school, and immediately after her graduation from the University of Minnesota, Jahren donated her winter clothing and got on a plane to California, where she began a doctoral program in soil science at the University of California, Berkeley.
Jahren met Bill, the man who would become her closest friend and research partner, on a field excursion to study soil in the Central Valley of California. As the graduate assistant on the trip, Jahren’s job was to supervise the work of the undergraduate students, and answer any questions they had. When she noticed that one of the students would consistently work on his own, digging his own hole separate from the others, she checked in on him, and almost immediately recognized a wit and intelligence similar to her own. She secured him a position as an assistant in the lab, and the two began a working relationship that would last for their entire professional careers. More importantly, they developed a profound platonic bond that went far beyond the relationship that either of them had with their own families. Later on, when Jahren introduced him to Clint, the man she had fallen in love with and married, Bill was initially reluctant to accept this change to his social world; however, the three of them quickly developed an easy, symbiotic relationship.
Jahren finished her Ph.D. in 1997, the same year that Bill received his bachelor’s degree. She had applied early to faculty positions, and was hired to teach at Georgia Tech immediately after graduation; it did not take much effort to convince Bill to join her as her lab assistant. In Atlanta, Jahren was overjoyed to finally achieve her dream of running her own research lab, but also stressed and overworked from the competing demands of research, teaching, and the constant search for funding. She explains that scientists live off of a three-year funding cycle, and there is not nearly enough grant money to fund every researcher, so the competition is fierce and the pressure for success is intense. Jahren admits that she ate very little, rarely showered, and spent most of her time working; Bill literally lived in the lab for a time, wearing “pajakis” (a t-shirt and khakis as pajamas) in case a secretary or custodian happened upon him, so that he could use the excuse that he was working late and had simply fallen asleep.
Meanwhile, what had previously seemed like a combination of nervous energy, stress, and anxiety had transformed into bipolar disorder, as Jahren suffered the intense highs of manic episodes and the crushing lows of the depression that followed them. Fortunately, Jahren was able to find a doctor who started her on medication that helped to balance her mental state.
Jahren and Bill threw themselves into their research, garnering bigger and better grants, but they also had a lot of fun along the way. Jahren tells the story of their field excursion for a soil science class, which involved a gourmet dinner of Hungarian dumplings at 3 A.M., and was topped off with a visit to Monkey Jungle, where the group could see themselves reflected in the primates in the enclosures. She and Bill also established a ritual of visiting a particular tree stump, where Bill regularly stashed his hair whenever he cut it. This led them to co-write a strange yet intriguing children’s book called The Getting Tree, about a tree that cannibalizes a young boy. As each other’s closest friend, Bill and Jahren consistently accepted each other for all of their faults, peculiarities, and shortcomings. Bill moved with Jahren to Johns Hopkins, where they set up another lab, and where Jahren would eventually meet and marry Clint. While she was pregnant with her son, she had to stop her medication regimen, and soon ended up in the hospital, in the throes of depression. What’s more, Jahren found herself banned from her own laboratory during her maternity leave—her safest and most comforting space—by her department chair, deeming her a liability.
Once her son is born, Jahren begins to gain some balance in her life. She is able to manage her bipolar disorder by resuming her medication, and begins to enjoy the novelty of motherhood. After her experience being banned from the lab at Johns Hopkins during maternity leave, Jahren, Clint, and Bill all move to Hawaii to work at a university with a more positive view of women in science.
When her son is young, Jahren receives a Fulbright fellowship and the family moves to Norway for a year; this gives her an opportunity to reflect on the peculiarities of her childhood, Scandinavian culture, and even her role as a working mother. When Bill’s father dies, Jahren knows that words of condolence are not enough, and she buys him a flight to Ireland—he has been back in Hawaii, running the lab while she is in Norway—and they mourn and grow together in the way that only they know how to do, by digging in the dirt.