In essence, Lab Girl is a coming-of-age story, following Hope Jahren’s intellectual and personal growth from her childhood in rural Minnesota to an adulthood spent in science labs in Hawaii. What is most notable about this memoir is that plants take center stage, as living beings that are just as important as humans. She uses the life cycle—both plant and human—to structure the book, and the different phases of the life of plants serve as metaphors for the milestones in her own life. The memoir itself is separated into three major sections, titled “Roots and Leaves,” “Wood and Knots,” and “Flowers and Fruit,” all corresponding to different phases of Jahren’s life. Ultimately, Jahren’s memoir argues that people and plants aren’t all that different, and that through a careful study of plants and their life cycles, people can actually come to better understand themselves and the people around them.
From the outset, Jahren illustrates that plants and humans are more similar than they may appear. In the first section of her memoir, aptly titled “Roots and Leaves,” Jahren explores her own roots—her childhood—and how she grew into a science professor, clearly linking her early years to that of a budding plant. Jahren focuses on beginnings by explaining that “every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” This process is not unlike Jahren’s childhood in Minnesota, as she spent countless hours in her father’s laboratory, mentally preparing for the day when she too would conduct her own experiments. She compares a plant’s inclination towards sunlight to her choice to pursue science because it offered her the intellectual nourishment she needed to survive. She then moves on to the risk-taking phase of plant life, when a root must anchor itself into the ground, ending “mobile phase” during which it had the opportunity to seek out more fertile soil or better conditions. In a parallel process, Jahren took a number of academic and personal risks to establish herself as a scientist. Not unlike the seed that takes root and begins to grow into a tree, the successful Ph.D. student riskily stakes her claim and waits patiently for her work to catch on. Jahren also describes her first professional experiences in the context of plant competition, in which each plant must work harder than its neighbors to access light and water, their essential resources. She discusses how some of the most successful plants are able to prosper by traveling far from where they began their lives. When she notes that the ferrissii plant is found from California to Georgia, she compares this cross-country travel to that of a “newly minted Ph.D. moving to a sprawling technical university” in order to establish her own lab and begin her professional career. Like the ferrissii, Jahren spends much of her youth competing with herself and others to find the right place to take root and grow.
Jahren further conflates plant life cycles with that of humans in “Wood and Knots,” as she moves on to her professional life, with its mixture of intense intellectual and personal growth—the wood—and embarrassing failures and frustrating obstacles—the knots. Jahren moved to Atlanta in 1996, when “every kind of growth seemed possible,” to begin her career at Georgia Tech. During this section, she discusses the budget of a research scientist by detailing the “budget” of a deciduous tree—that is, its quota of leaves that can receive sunlight. Like a scientist vying for one of very few national grants to support her research, the deciduous tree “has no alternative to succeed this year, and every year after” if it is to survive the competition for valuable resources. During her time at Georgia Tech, Jahren likens herself to both a kudzu vine and desert cactus—she was “hopelessly ambitious” like the vine, even in the face of “life-threatening stresses” like the cactus. Jahren’s life was conspicuously unglamorous: in an attempt to get ahead in her work, she rarely showered, subsisted on protein drinks, lived in a trailer on the outskirts of town, and later in an apartment that she dubbed the “Rat Hole.” While she had achieved her dream of creating a functioning lab with her name on it, her life was a series of hidden struggles for survival. With the help of her study of plants, however, Jahren is able to place this period of her life in perspective, as time when she had to flourish professionally, even with little to no nourishment.
In “Flowers and Fruit,” Jahren seems to find her way, both personally and professionally, ushering in an immensely productive period in her life. Her study of plants seems to have helped her understand the cycles of her own life and allowed her to reflect on her roles as a research scientist, wife, and mother. Jahren prefaces one of her research trips to Northern Canada by discussing a tree’s process of “hardening” in order to survive the cold of winter. Her own hardening process is a method of shielding herself from the disdain of her fellow researchers on the trip, whom she believes will never consider her a true scientist. She has learned to ignore those who doubt or discount her, instead focusing on her work and the lessons it offers her. Also during this section, Jahren discusses the sexual reproduction of plants as a lens through which to see her relationship with her husband, Clint, but it is her discussion of growth patterns in adult plants that provides the key to her adult life. When she notes that the creation of “the new generation comes at a significant cost to the parent,” she is largely reflecting on the son she will carry at great risk to her mental health, given her struggles with bipolar disorder. Throughout Jahren’s memoir, it is clear that observations of trees and plants have given her the kind of perspective she was not able to glean from other people. As she notes, her scientific work has taught her that “everything is more complicated than we first assume,” referring equally to the complex set of growth processes within a tree, and to the mysterious psychological development going on within each person.
Life Cycles ThemeTracker
Life Cycles Quotes in Lab Girl
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.
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.
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.
The discovery of trees that could live in the dark is akin to a discovery of humans that could live underwater.
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.
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.