Jahren begins her memoir by directing herself to her readers, asking them to look at the world through the eyes of a scientist, and leads them through the process of observation and hypothesis, two central elements of the scientific method. By beginning the story of her path towards the highest echelons of the academic world with an assurance to each and every reader that “you are now a scientist,” Jahren immediately democratizes the profession, allowing anyone with interest and dedication to enter the world of science.
Jahren makes a concerted effort to humanize the scientific process and the people involved, debunking the image of scientists as a unique group of superior minds. One of Jahren’s underlying arguments is that anyone can be a scientist, and she makes that statement directly in the book’s prologue, noting that some people “will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They’re wrong.” As a woman, she has a vested interest in eroding the traditional image of science as an elite club for men, for the especially gifted, or for those with enough money to pay their way through college. She describes her earliest science experiments as a form of child’s play, like using pH testing tape to distinguish between spit, water, root beer, and urine. She describes the tools of the trade, so plentiful in her father’s community college lab, as “serious things for grown-ups,” but her childlike terminology belies the playful nature of the experience. However, personal experience has shown Jahren how easy it can be to fall into the trap of separating and elevating scientists and their role in the world. For example, at one point she distinguishes a “true” scientist as one who no longer performs others’ experiments, and instead “develops her own and thus generations wholly new knowledge.” This, she notes, is what often weeds many otherwise bright people out of Ph.D. programs. The promise of acceptance into that elite club is enticing yet dangerous, and underscores the importance of the larger work Jahren does in her memoir by humanizing herself and those she works with.
Overall, however, Jahren is almost more comfortable acknowledging her mistakes than her successes, an openness that further demystifies science and makes it more approachable to readers. Jahren notes that the most important thing she has learned about science is that “experiments are not about getting the world to do what you want it to do,” and that multiple failures are simply a part of the learning process. One summer of field research that did not provide her with the data to support her original hypothesis, for example, was proof that her “future career was unraveling,” complete with an image of herself returning to her hometown to work in the slaughterhouse for the rest of her life. Jahren demonstrates the ways in which the image of the omniscient and infallible scientist can impede progress, as young researchers focus on their mistakes and not their successes. In baring her mistakes—and her ability to recover from them—Jahren emphasizes that all scientists are human, and that science requires mental toughness and perseverance—not perfection. Her final days as a Ph.D. student were spent in her lab, blowing glass and filling it with carbon dioxide gas for use in the mass spectrometer, a highly repetitive process that also requires intense concentration. One night after losing focus for a minute, Jahren allowed her glass ball to overfill with carbon dioxide gas and shatter everywhere, temporarily deafening her but leaving her otherwise unscathed. She berates herself for the mistake, telling herself that this is a sign that she is not a scientist, because they “don’t do things like this. Fuck-ups do things like this.” However, as the rest of her memoir shows, mistakes like these don’t actually strip her of her status as a scientist—all scientists make mistakes. As an established scientist with numerous publications in respected journals, Jahren takes care to acknowledge the ups and downs inherent in even the most successful research. She explains that those publications, with their portrayal of a smooth process from hypothesis to conclusion, “perpetuate a disrespectful amnesia against the entire gardens that rotted in fungus and dismay, the electrical signals that refused to stabilize,” and a variety of other mishaps along the way. Science, Jahren informs her readers, is messy and imperfect, despite scientists’ best efforts to display only the refined version.
Jahren also demystifies science by highlighting the unglamorous, incessant, and often frustrating search for funding that rules the world of science research. Even well into her career, Jahren was chasing a rapidly shrinking pot of money to fund her work, even going so far as to ask her readers to “please give me a call” if they were interested in financially supporting the sciences. One strategy was to pitch research projects that she knew the National Science Foundation would be more likely to fund. For example, she worked on an NSF-funded grant related to forensic analysis and anti-terrorism, on the wisdom that “science for war will always pay better than science for knowledge.” Her plan, of course, was to use the generous funding to work on both the forensic analysis project as well as her own work in plant biology. Jahren goes into the intimate financial details of a career in science, taking what appear to be huge amounts of grant money and chasing it down to the last penny. The 2013 budget of the National Science Foundation for paleobiology, for example, was $6 million, a number so large that it is difficult to imagine, yet Jahren notes that this money must be spread across the entire country, to each deserving paleobiologist, bringing each researcher’s contract to somewhere around $165,000. Taking into account the salary and benefits of a full-time lab manager, taxes, chemicals, equipment, student help, and travel for conferences and workshops, Jahren illustrates how there is very little money left. In underscoring this bleak reality, Jahren dismantles the idea that scientific research is glamorous and lucrative. Like many other jobs, money is always an issue.
Lab Girl presents a very different image of both science and scientists, helping to reshape a field that for centuries has been dominated by privileged white men. While on the surface, this memoir is simply the story of Jahren’s life and profession, it is also a treatise on a rapidly changing world, which will help to change her readers’ ways of thinking about the role of science in the world.
Demystification of Science ThemeTracker
Demystification of Science Quotes in Lab Girl
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.
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 […].
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.