By Viji Subramanian
Plant geobiologist Hope Jahren’s recent book, “Lab Girl,” adeptly alternates between memoir and science as she offers engagingly told chronicles of her first love: the green creatures on this planet. Skillfully navigating her way through uncharted territory like a vine creeper, Jahren is able to gently nudge the reader to love her plant world along with her while candidly sharing her experiences with difficult gender and funding issues still prevalent in the scientific world.
Research in Jahren’s lab spans a wide range of studies including investigation of carbon-isotope composition of fossil as well as living plants to better understand the link between metabolism and environment over geologic time. Her work on the stable isotope signature also has forensic applications in the identification of the origin of certain explosives, linking materials to the culprits.
The book begins with Jahren as a little girl playing “a sovereign prince, preoccupied in our castle” in her father’s physics and geology lab in Minnesota. She inherited her path as a scientist, it may seem, from her father. But her love for plants is her own making. After academic stints at Georgia Tech. and Johns Hopkins University, Jahren’s latest castle is at the University of Hawai’i, where she is a tenured professor in geology.
Jahren’s marvel for plants is infectious; for example, how a cactus survives extreme heat by “shedding its roots” to prevent water loss while trees living in the other extreme of temperatures survive frost by creating “a potent antifreeze” within their cells. Unlike animals, Jahren explains to her readers, plants cannot change their location to escape unfavorable conditions; rather they survive by being clever and resilient.
Jahren celebrates plants as deliberate, decisive creatures equipped with desire and a tenacity to survive – a seed’s “fervently wishing to be,” or “the terrifying risk” taken by the first root to establish home. A seed can travel places but once it sprouts roots and engages with the soil, that seed has chosen its home; its destiny with its environment is fixed.
Jahren’s tale of triumph in the academic world be incomplete without the mention of her quirky, colleague Bill whose competence she exemplifies by his ability to not only visualize but also transform more than one dingy, battered space into a working lab. Bill, a ‘Senior Research Lab Manager’ in the Jahren lab, has been her partner in academic crime from the moment she started her career. Jahren comes up with the research ideas, brings in the grant money and packages the data into manuscripts while Bill makes sure that the data keep coming. Together they are the yin and yang of her research.
On a visit to a ‘Monkey Jungle’ following a lab field trip, Jahren quietly observes the uncanny physical resemblance between Bill and a spider monkey. Bill comments thereafter, “I fucking met myself.”
Although Jahren is unable to categorize her affiliation with Bill, the book communicates their symbiotic relationship that begins with their mutual love for plants and quickly develops into a strong bond.
When Bill’s father passes on, Jahren is unable to convey her condolence through words. Instead she plans a visit for the two of them to Ireland. Standing on top of a hill, in the rain, she identifies their next scientific adventure. She observes that the moss is able to retain water even on highlands, potentially dictating its own landscape. “Green begetting green begetting green?” By sharing her excitement for this curious observation, Jahren connects with Bill and helps him mourn.
Jahren’s depiction of plants is engaging and accessible and her own narrative is honest, at times heart wrenching, but mostly empowering despite the obstacles she faces both as a woman scientist and as a scientist working in a difficult funding environment.
To illustrate her experience of sexism in science, Jahren recounts how, during a trip to Alaska with a handful of paleontologists, she realizes that her male colleagues did not acknowledge her, “the grubby little girl who couldn’t lift forty pounds with a weirdo in tow,” as their colleague. She concludes, “They would never accept me as having a legitimate intellectual claim to the site, even if our funding agency did.”
A more egregious discrimination occurs at Johns Hopkins University where she was a professor and at that time pregnant. The head of the department, who sees her in her pregnant state, sends her a message forbidding her from coming to the lab while on medical leave, because of “liability” concerns. This act of cowardice propels Jahren to leave Johns Hopkins and set roots in Hawai’i instead.
In the quest for knowledge, a frequent roadblock is lack of funding. “Science for war will always pay better than science for knowledge,” she writes. This unfortunate reality touches every scientist. The federal funding available for curiosity-driven research is trivial. Jahren reasons that even “the best and hardest-working scientist” like Bill “has no long-term job security.”
Flourishing as a scientist is probably less likely than a seed successfully morphing into a tree – a mere “five percent.” Armed with her passion for plants, Jahren attained several well-deserved accolades; her success and subsequent funds liberated her from the stress of keeping the lab afloat. “The combination of freedom and love is a potent one,” she declares, “it made me more productive than ever.”
In a powerful yet simple experiment to investigate the effect of greenhouse gas levels predicted for the next several hundred years on the growth of sweet potatoes – Jahern uncovered shocking results: the sweet potatoes were larger but with much lower protein content. “The bigger potatoes of the future might feed more people,” Jahren warns, “while nourishing them less.” The onus of this data is ours to share, we had better come up with a solution for our future!
“Viewed from space,” she proclaims, “our planet appears less green with each passing year.” Let’s engage the seed with the soil. Jahren implores her readers, “Plant one tree this year.”
The views expressed in this blog post belong solely to its author and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS.
Viji Subramanian is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology at NYU. Her research interests include investigating the control of DNA breakage and repair in meiosis.
“Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren. 290 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95