Book Review: ‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren

“There is nothing in the world more perfect than a slide rule,” begins Hope Jahren’s first book. Even if you disagree with that statement, * Lab Girl is a delight to read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about scientific research.

Hope Jahren is a Geobiologist, and her book offers a fascinating look at what it’s like to be a female in a highly competitive scientific field (geobiology is a relatively young branch of research that investigates the interactions between the physical Earth and global ecological systems). More than that, though, Lab Girl is a beautifully written story of the hard work, optimism, and vibrant interpersonal relationships that color Hope’s world. Now a professor at the University of Hawaii, Hope’s career as a researcher has been filled with many ups and downs, which give the book some unexpected tension. It was when reading Lab Girl that I first realized that the life of a research scientist is not always a finically stable one.

Researchers get their projects funded (and their paychecks) though grants, which must be applied for on a regular basis. These grants are highly competitive, and there is never enough money to go around. In 2013, the United States spent only 2.7% of its GDP on research and development (1). ** This is bad news for scientists like Hope Jahren, who rely on this funding to conduct their research. The author does an excellent job of describing how competition for grants has changed the way scientists interact with each other, and how an uncertain future at work impacted other areas of her life.

In the end, my favorite part of Lab Girl was the way the author deftly melded science with story. It’s a memoir, not a textbook, but you would be hard-pressed to read it without absorbing some of Hope’s knowledge about the world of plants. Her frank descriptions never leave the reader behind, and often seem to imply a deeper meaning: “Humans are actively creating a world where only weeds can live and then feigning shock and outrage upon finding so many.” In her brief informational chapters about plants, she uses a tone that verges on reverence. It’s hard not to pick up her enthusiasm as you read the narrative of a life well-spent in the pursuit of knowledge.

 

*I disagree. My memoir would start like this: “There is nothing in the world more perfect than an unbroken slab of expensive dark chocolate.”

**According to Business Insider, here’s a list of countries that spent a greater percentage of their GDP on research that year: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. While the US spent the highest dollar amount that year (i.e. 2.7% of America’s GDP is still more money than 4.2% of Israel’s GDP), I think it’s interesting to note where different countries’ priorities lie.

 

References:

  1. R. H. Insider Business, These 9 countries spend a greater share of money on science than the United States. Bus. Insid., (available at http://www.businessinsider.com/american-science-funding-statistics-vs-world-2016-2).
  2. Image from: http://www.cdnsciencepub.com/blog/lab-girl-by-hope-jahren.aspx

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