Friday, July 21, 2017

Review: Lab Girl

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Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Genre: Auto-biography
Rating: 8/10


As you may or may not know, I am a scientist. 

Man that still feels like a half-truth. Let me be more specific. I have a BA and MS in Physics, am currently working towards a PhD and am employed by my university to research biophysics. [[that makes me a scientist...right?]] 

In my undergrad, I never felt like a minority. It never felt like physics was some sort of boy's club that I was crashing, even if most of my classmates were indeed men. [[grad school is a different story but we are going to skip right on past that....]] However, in undergrad, I went to conferences geared exclusively towards women in physics, where we talked about what it was like to be a relatively new intrusion on an old institution. And while I never felt like my gender made any difference, I knew that might not always feel true. 

Women still have a unique path in the sciences-- a path that I don't hear much about. Recently, I was wondering what women who published papers did once they got married. Would she change her name? But then what about her scientific paper which no longer has her name on it? I wondered who I could ask this of, realizing quite suddenly that every professor I've had in graduate school has been male. 

What this all leads to is, when my aunt recommended an autobiography of a woman planet scientist, I was excited to give it a go-- even if autobiographies aren't my thing. I don't hear many stories about women making their way through a scientific career. My undergrad explicitly worked on diversifying the physics department, and though we were small, we had female and male physics professors. But at the time I didn't realize how lucky I was to have these women who's brains I could pick and thus neglected to ask their opinions and hear their paths. 

Hope Jahren made her career as a scientist back at at time when women were not always welcomed with open arms. Her book alternates chapters of her life with lessons on plants and trees, how they grow, respond to their environment, bear a winter's chill that would kill a human, and she weaves these botany lessons in with her story with a seamless grace. Her story is both heart-breaking and hilarious in part. There are many things she skips over-- her father inspired her to become a scientist, but she notes no communication with him or her mother once she left for college. Not that I can blame her-- she is bold in writing about her struggles with mental illness. I can't image how difficult it would be for someone is so characteristically reserved to write with such rawness. 

Her early career was difficult, full of 80 hour work weeks just to try and scrap by, a constant lack of funding leading to her best friend and coworker literally living in a car because there was no money to give him a decent salary. On the one hand it sounds like an awful future that I wish to avoid at any cost ((y'all I barely have enough passion to see a 40 hour work week in my future. no more.)) but I know that there is always more to a story that can be written down in a 300 page book. 

Overall I loved the book. When I read about a female scientist's career path there is a small part of me evaluating the story as a possible mirror for my own path forward-- which is why some parts of the book were terrifying, as she struggled and struggled to make ends meet, constantly working with no breaks to try and get new results. However if I let her story be nothing more than one story of one scientist making her way in the world, then it is complicated beautiful messy tale. 


Favorite Quotes
"I looked forward to my analyses with the same happy anticipation one brings to a baseball game: anything might happen, but it will probably take a long time."

"Instead, I would take a long, lonely journey toward adulthood with the dogged faith of the pioneer who has realized that there is no promised land but still holds out hope that the destination will be someplace better than here."


What about you? Have you read Lab Girl? What did you think? 


2 comments:

  1. It does sound like a fascinating account of one woman's journey through her career. And it's funny to me, especially the parts about the person living in their car, or scraping by to make ends meet- science is so important and the educational attainment so high, it's a shame that people have to struggle.

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    1. I know! Grant writing can be a never-ending time suck which only sometimes results in your lab having money to like, you know, buy basic supplies and pay employees. It's one of the reasons I do not want to be a professor when I graduate-- you just have to do too much, juggle too many tasks.

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