This is a memoir about a life in science but Jahren doesn’t write like a scientist. Her prose is vivid and impressionistic. She describes her father’s lab as her childhood castle, the cold winters and startling summers of Minnesota, the exasperation of a gifted child who is told to slow down. Working nights in a hospital she is accompanied by the heart metaphors of Dickens as she makes the sterile solutions that save lives.
She intersperses the working life of a scientist with her personal story and vignettes about the lives of plants and trees. A few things particularly struck me, like the financial challenges of being an academic scientist, responsible for funding your team, and the struggles particular to women in the profession.
The book also gives you a sense of the range of skills you need to be a successful scientist. It’s not enough to be brilliant in your field and a great teacher, you also have to be an entrepreneur, a politician, a manager, a diplomat, a performer, a writer. You need the strength to dig trenches in the Arctic and the finesse to make glass tubes in the lab.
Although the book is loosely chronological it shifts easily between Jahren’s different worlds, giving it the feel of a conversation with a very entertaining friend. And it is friendship that is at the heart of the book.
Bill has been her lab manager for over twenty years. Jahren describes how their shared love of work and their unconventional outlooks have led them to stay together as they moved universities, each time setting up a new lab. They have travelled the world, worked through the night, eaten bad food, had, it seems, a disproportionate number of traffic accidents, and stood as a team when they felt the world was against them. It made me wish we could all have a Bill.
I received a copy of Lab Girl from the publisher via Netgalley.
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