JULY 18, 2016
IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND how scientific discoveries happen, read a scientist’s life story. For instance, in his autobiography, Charles Darwin recounts a beetle-collecting trip he took as a teenager, in which he came upon prize specimens in such quick succession that he soon faced a pressing dilemma: he already held beetles in both hands when he found a third, just as excellent. Rather than choose to give up any of the insects, the young Darwin popped one into his mouth — and immediately regretted it. “Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”
A century or so later, the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane recalled learning the physics of firedamp, or methane, when his father asked him to stand in a gas-filled mine shaft and recite Marc Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar. Haldane lost consciousness “somewhere about ‘the noble Brutus,’” but when he collapsed to the floor he quickly came to, because there was still oxygen in the atmosphere at the ground level. “In this way,” Haldane would later explain, “I learnt that firedamp is lighter than air and not dangerous to breathe.”
Darwin’s story illustrates his almost reckless delight in the diversity of the living world. That would serve him well in the task of distilling volumes of experiments and natural history observations into the “abstract” of his evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species. Haldane’s, on the other hand, shows us the beginnings of a career in which he risked his own life testing submarine safety systems during World War II before going on to integrate Darwin’s theories with the emerging understanding of genetics. Haldane never shied from drawing on his wide-ranging scientific work to argue for a more equitable world — even as he followed that argument into political associations he would later regret.
Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl is like many other scientist biographies, tracing the origins of her love for the scientific process while recounting moments of insight and discovery. Jahren is a geobiologist, who uses traces of the different atomic forms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, or nitrogen — the elements of life — to puzzle out how plants cope with heat or cold, droughts and floods, and attacks by diseases, insects, and other pests. In Lab Girl, she interleaves short essays about plants’ ingenuity and resilience with episodes from a scientific career that took her from the prairie of rural Minnesota to the lush greenery of Hawaii and the glaciated beauty of Scandinavia.
Jahren follows Darwin’s footsteps in reconstructing the ancient past through close study of the present, and in her palpable awe at plants’ evolutionary inventiveness. Some of the most poetic passages of Lab Girl are accounts of the green and growing world: the suspended life waiting in every seed, the curious companionship of tree seedlings with soil-dwelling fungi that guard against drought and heat, or the audible rustle of a field of corn growing as quickly as it can absorb Midwestern summer sunlight. To Jahren the most prosaic plant life is a daily miracle, even that of the smallish, nondescript maple tree you might see in a grocery store parking lot:
A decorative maple, about the height of a street light […] casts a shadow about the size of a parking space. However, if we pluck off all the leaves and lay them flat, side by side, they would cover three parking spaces. By suspending each leaf separately, the tree has stacked its surface area into a sort of ladder for light to fall down.
Botanists, plant ecologists, agronomists, and other students of the photosynthetic world — #TeamAutotroph, to use a Twitter hashtag Jahren has popularized — often complain that the rest of humanity suffers from “plant blindness,” a tendency to miss the beauty and diversity growing in our back yards, in planters in front of the Safeway, or even between cracks in the sidewalk. Lab Girl will, hopefully, open many more eyes to that beauty.
Jahren’s research reveals plants’ responses to changing climates, and, through them, reconstructs the warmings and coolings of the ancient world. Ultimately, her discoveries may encourage us to make plans to survive the unprecedented results of human-induced climate change. She has received Young Scientist medals from both the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union — she is just the fourth person, and the only woman, to earn both these honors. But beyond these successes, her scientific story is profoundly different from Darwin’s or Haldane’s. It takes place in a time when science itself feels more precarious.
In Darwin’s day, scientists were mostly men with the means and leisure to spend their days puttering over experiments in the back garden and hand-writing correspondences with fellow-enthusiasts around the world. Darwin rode social connections and the expansive power of the British Empire all the way to the Galápagos, and then spent decades raising a family on a country estate as he pieced together his magnum opus. Over the decades of the 20th century when Haldane worked, intensive government investment helped turn science from a hobby into a profession — albeit still a profession dominated by white men.
Now, public research funding grows ever more sparse, and competition for the security of tenure-track positions grows ever tighter. More women and people of color have entered the ranks of research professors, but they still face systematic disadvantages, hostility, and harassment at every career stage. These themes are threaded through Lab Girl like English ivy in a scrubby second-growth forest: the difficulties of pursuing research as one of the kinds of people who aren’t expected to become scientists; the shoestring budget out of which scientific discovery must happen; but also the precious value of human connections in a life marked by cross-country moves and transitory student-mentor relationships.
This tone is set from the beginning, with Jahren’s memories of practicing experiments in her father’s high school science classroom in a small Minnesota town. She wryly captures the comfort of Upper Midwestern stoicism — the security of silent companionship on a freezing winter night — but also a niggling sense that the strong women around her might have more on their minds than tomato planting and church dinners. “When you grow up around people who don’t speak very much,” Jahren notes, “what they do say to you is indelible.” Her mother took honorable mention in the 1950 Westinghouse Science Talent Search alongside future winners of the Nobel Prize and the Fields Medal, but was forced to postpone an undergraduate degree in chemistry when she couldn’t support herself with the kinds of part-time work available to young women at the time. As much as Jahren went to the University of Minnesota on a scholarship because of those many evenings of studious play in her father’s lab, she went to become the scientist her mother couldn’t be.
Lab Girl treats the challenges of life as a woman in the laboratory not so much as an issue for discussion but as a fact of world, like the need for an umbrella when it rains. The chain-smoking hospital staffer who trains teenaged Jahren in her first laboratory job insists on driving female co-workers home after night shifts to keep them safe from “asshole rapists.” One of Jahren’s transcendent moments of discovery comes late at night in an empty laboratory — not because her analysis ran so late, but because a staffer in the lab is so unpleasant toward women that it’s worth a sleepless night to avoid him. Another moment of happiness, Jahren’s marriage and pregnancy and the birth of her son, so discomforts her male colleagues that the department chair bans her from the premises until she delivers — and it sours her relationship with the department and that university.
Despite all this, Jahren feels deeply comfortable with the solidity and specificity of science. From that high school classroom to university lecture halls and onward to a series of laboratories all her own, Lab Girl catalogs the joys of the scientific life. There is the satisfaction of a repetitive laboratory task done well and reliably, evoked by Jahren’s undergraduate job preparing intravenous medication in the University of Minnesota hospital. Carefully mixing drugs while maintaining sterile conditions, she says, is “more like dancing with your hands than it is like making something.”
There is the pleasure of recognizing a fellow-mind that fits with yours as a symbiotic fungus fits the roots of a young tree. For Jahren, it’s Bill Hagopian, an oddball student she meets at the edge of a geology class field trip, who rapidly becomes the closest member of her scientific family. They share a sideways view of life and a fascination with the natural world, though Hagopian expresses both with more profanity. He quickly becomes a brotherly source of emotional support, and follows Jahren from Berkeley to Georgia to become her lifelong lab manager.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, there is the perfect, private delight of collecting a piece of new data. For Jahren, “the moment when I became a scientist” happens when, as a young graduate student working alone in the lab, she completes an analysis to find that hackberry trees — smallish, scrappy trees found in woodlands across central and eastern North America — wrap their seeds in a web of opal.
I stood and looked out the window, waiting for the sun to come up, and eventually a few tears ran down my face. I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother — or because I felt like nobody’s daughter — or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.
Jahren describes the independent laboratory she eventually built from as an opal-webbed casing of her own — the quintessential safe space, where she can do the things she loves to do with the people she chooses to work alongside. Yet in almost the same breath, she explains how tenuous that safe space can be, and how quickly the joy of discovery gives way to fretting about the future. “Ask a science professor what she worries about,” Jahren invites her reader. Failure of past findings to reproduce under new conditions, how best to devise a fruitful follow-up experiment — these are not, she predicts, what keeps that professor up at night. “She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: ‘Money.’”
Finding the money to actually do science is, these days, more challenging than much of the science itself. It emerges that Hagopian spent stretches of his first years with Jahren working without a salary, and that he helps stock and furnish the lab with dumpster-diving wiles and dogged technical ingenuity. One chapter follows the pair as they drive across multiple states to collect used equipment from the lab of a mentor who will soon retire. In those early years, Jahren feared losing her first faculty position because she couldn’t win a research grant.
Since then, the screws have only gotten tighter — barring a one-time bump from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package in 2009, the budget of the National Science Foundation has been effectively flat over more than a decade, and the National Institutes of Health have lost ground to inflation. For all the potential importance of Jahren’s work, and indeed all basic research in fields from genetics to optical physics, it’s often done for barely more than the sheer love of discovery, through a steely combination of curiosity and will.
The world is heating up, and it often seems that the intellectual luxuries afforded to scientists of the past — Darwin’s leisurely publication schedule, Haldane’s dalliances with radical politics — are gone. Lab Girl’s rendition of the daily institutional frustrations of research marks it as a different kind of scientific memoir — but also as a product of 21st-century science. If you navigate among scientists’ blogs or scroll through their Twitter feeds, you’ll quickly find the same fears and vexations and injustices Jahren describes, intertwined with accounts of the work that excites scientists’ passions. Scientists today do not simply tell the public about the results of their research; they are also increasingly ready and eager to explain the hard work and sleepless nights behind the headlines in scientific journals. Jahren does not makes science look like an easy career choice, but it isn’t her job to do so — and if Lab Girl chronicles the real and substantial barriers to becoming a successful scientist, it also makes that life compelling: she shows the fruit that can still grow from the rocky soil of a research career.
Jeremy B. Yoder is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia, studying evolutionary genetics. His professional website is jbyoder.org, and he tweets at @JBYoder.