Jahren struggles to integrate her roles as a woman and as a scientist, announcing at one point in her memoir that “the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.” Criticizing the scientific sphere for its marginalization of women and lamenting the lack of female role models in her professional world, Jahren is forced to create her own image of what a female scientists is, and how to balance that with the expectations of her as a working wife and mother.
Jahren describes her lab as a refuge from “the professional battlefield” of the highly competitive world of science research. This relationship with science presents a double-edged sword, as the scientific community can be harsh and unforgiving for women, yet Jahren feels most herself within the concrete and unambiguous work housed in the science lab. As a young girl in school, Jahren admits that while she did not understand why, she longed for the praise and attention of her female teachers. Yet she was also frustrated by the requirements placed upon her: she was prohibited from reading ahead, and was punished when she did not speak or act “nicely.” In contrast, she describes her first experiences in the science classroom as positive, “despite the fact that I was just a girl.” This sense of gender-blindness would unfortunately later give way to recognition of the myriad microaggressions towards women in science as she moved up the ranks. By the time she received her Ph.D., Jahren was aware that the hardest work—getting a job as a professor—was ahead of her, and that being a woman in the male-dominated science world would not be an advantage. She notes that she applied for teaching positions well before finishing her degree, knowing that she would need to be “at least twice as proactive and strategic” as a male scientist with the same degree. As a professor at Georgia Tech, Jahren learns that as a female academic, she is being scrutinized from every angle: through the walls of her office, she can hear other faculty members discuss her sexual orientation and rate her physical attractiveness in relation to her fellow female professors. Her early dating attempts are equally difficult, as potential mates are uninterested in her research and put off by her work ethic. Just as Jahren had little experience with female scientists, the men around her often regarded her as a strange and unsettling creature.
While her youth spent in her father’s science lab helped to lay the foundation for Jahren’s career as a botanist, her relationship with her mother provided a more complex and deeper form of motivation. Jahren’s discontent with the traditional image of motherhood and family—as modeled by her mother—helped Jahren place her own professional success at the center of her world. Jahren’s mother was exceptionally intelligent, but despite receiving a partial scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota in 1951, it was nearly impossible for her to graduate because “the university experience was designed for men, usually men with money.” As a young girl, Jahren witnessed her mother return to school, absorbing the mental toughness that comes from balancing studies with full-time motherhood. As an adult, Jahren is single-mindedly focused on the pursuit of science, claiming that working in a laboratory saved her life, keeping her from “having to drop out and from then being bodily foreclosed upon by some boy back home.” Her dreams are the complete opposite of the domestic fantasy of many young girls, as she understands that she would resent having to cut short her ambitions. Despite the many lonely moments that accompany her path to success, Jahren is convinced that this is infinitely preferable to a life like her mother’s. During her Ph.D. research, Jahren is struck by a sense of loneliness, as she has no one to share her successes with. After one long night of research, she begins to cry from the realization that she was “nobody’s wife or mother” and “nobody’s daughter.” While she does eventually build her own family, Jahren is resigned to the loneliness inherent in her ambition, and the pangs of regret that will accompany many of her greatest successes.
Jahren uses her own experience of pregnancy and fighting to hold down a job to further criticize the misogyny that the sciences are still steeped in. Without female role models to look to, Jahren is forced to forge her own path, tenaciously defining herself as both a scientist and a mother. As Jahren prepares to be a mother, she writes, “I am supposed to celebrate the ripening fruit of love and luxuriate in the fullness of my womb,” and contemplates her inability to do so. Feeling disaffected by the ill-fitting images of motherhood that are forced upon pregnant women, Jahren rebels in her own highly intellectual way, determined to have her family life conform to her professional needs rather than the other way around. During Jahren’s pregnancy, she finds that she is effectively banned from her own lab by Walter, the chair of her department. Angry at being expelled from the most important space in her world on the sole basis of being pregnant, Jahren can only lament the fact that “half these guys are drunk in their offices,” yet she is considered the liability. This experience of blatant misogyny leads Jahren and her husband, Clint, to leave the university and re-establish the Jahren Lab at an institution with a more enlightened view of women in the workplace. While working on an experiment in the lab with her best friend and research partner, Bill, Jahren glances at the clock and notes casually that her son should be asleep by now, challenging of the assumption that working mothers will also take full responsibility for the child rearing, as well. This point is important, as Jahren will be the role model she never had as a child, and she has a chance to combat the unreasonable expectations that cause many women to give up on their dreams.
At the age of five, Jahren came to understand that she was “less than a boy,” unable to enjoy the same freedom, wild experiments, and dangerous play that her brothers did. She was more like her father than anyone in the family, yet he also “looked just like a scientist was supposed to,” while she was only a scientist on the inside. Lab Girl seeks to realign that narrow and limiting image of scientists with the reality of a changing landscape of students, faculty, and researchers in academia.
Women and Science ThemeTracker
Women and Science Quotes in Lab Girl
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.