A Hope-ful story

On becoming a scientist.I sometimes receive emails, and now and then a letter, from readers who say they like what I write. Recently, a reader sent a book that was extra special because it related a story near to my heart.

“Lab Girl: A story of trees, science and love,” by Hope Jahren, is a memoir of a woman who became a scientist before women could be scientists. She was born into a scientific family. Her dad taught introductory physics and earth science in a community college in Minnesota. Hope got to hang out in her father’s laboratory, where she “played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them.”

She describes in detail cinderblock walls slathered with paint through which she could still, if she concentrated, see the concrete texture beneath, and rubber wainscoting she guess was held in place with glue because she measured it with a 30-meter surveyor’s tape and could find no nails anywhere.

Hope and her father were “like a duke and his sovereign prince” in that lab, he preparing for the next day’s classes and she working through canned experiments, “making sure the college boys would have the easy success toward which they were predisposed.” Jahren knew from the age of five she wanted to be just like her father, “even though on the outside I was disguised as a girl.”

Her descriptions of her life are three-dimensional word paintings, from her Scandinavian family and the Presbyterian church in which she was baptized in 1969, to the hand-shoveled sidewalks of her youth, to the succession of college laboratories in which at first she studied and then later, her own name on the door, she researched the lives of trees and other plants, the first life to eventually make human existence possible on Planet Earth.

She had met Bill when he was a student on a field trip she ran. Like the other students on that field trip, Bill was digging in the dirt to expose and analyze soil layers.

But he was digging by himself, away from the other teams. She asked whether he was digging for gold.

“No. I just like to dig,” he replied. “I used to live in a hole.”

He had lived in a hole, as Jahren described later in the book, and that experience and dedication became a long scientific partnership as they studied the way a seed, sometimes lying dormant for decades, waits for just the right moment to be come a root and trunk, then leaves, drawing nutrients through its veins …

But any description of such technical goings-on is woven through the warp and woof of a male-dominated fabric of scientific research, of laboratory equipment purchased from Radio Shack and Bill living in an abandoned storeroom off the lab while Jahren assembled applications for government research grants that would allow her to pay him.

I remember granddaughter telling Grandma about how when we went hiking, I pointed out the variety of leaves  on the many different species, and how she would rather just walk among the trees and sing. I understood completely; I had attained a relatively advanced age before I began to pay attention to the details that identified the arboreal species, though I spent nearly all my youthful life among them.

“Lab Girl” is an engrossing and fun tale by an accomplished storyteller scientist. It is an engrossing tale of gender bias and harassment and research and discovery. It also is a loving read for anyone who enjoys getting one’s hands dirty in the soil, and making friends with worms and bugs and the seeds that become tall trees.

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