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Sonoma Medicine

The magazine of the Sonoma County Medical Association

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Biological Ambitions

Jeff Sugarman, MD
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren, Knopf, 304 pages (2016).

Anyone who has worked in a research laboratory knows the frustration of failure. Experiments go awry for good reasons—such as poor experimental design and improper hypothesis—and for trivial ones, such as power outage, measurement error or improper permits. Researchers, be they graduate students or professors, also know the thrill of discovery. 

Reading Lab Girl, a memoir by Hope Jahren, PhD, brought me back to the experience of knocking my head against the wall in the lab while preparing my own PhD. (We both finished our PhDs in 1995, hers in soil science at UC Berkeley, mine in molecular biology at UC San Diego.) Her words about the joy of having knowledge that no one else in the world has will resonate with anyone who has done experimental research. 

The three sections of Lab Girl—“Roots and Leaves,” “Wood and Knots,” and “Flowers and Fruit”—comprise a memoir of Jahren’s life and scientific career, along with a lovely tour of plant biology. The memoir takes us from her childhood in a small Minnesota town, to her coming of age in graduate school at UC Berkeley, and finally to her academic success and acceptance.

By Jahren’s own account, she is a fanatically hard worker. She rightly acknowledges, but does not dwell on, the tediousness of lab work, observing that “like a lot a lab work that happens in the background, it wasn’t very interesting . . . but had to be done carefully and without error.” Much of the book traces the pain of her academic rejections at the hands of an impermeable good ol’ boys club in the male-dominated world of geobiology research. According to Jahren, the club initially rejected her ideas because of their novelty and her gender. In her view, the academic world can often be myopic and slow to change, and new ideas may be threatening or misunderstood. 

Many chapters in Lab Girl start with lovely metaphors relating the plant world to the human realm. “The first real leaf is a new idea,” writes Jahren. “As soon as a seed is anchored, its priorities shift and it reflects all its energy toward stretching up. Its reserves have nearly run out . . . it has to work harder than everything above it.” This last observation could well refer to Jahren’s own struggles as a young scientist.

Although Jahren’s early career was difficult, the tone she uses in her descriptions of her place in the academic world is too complaining at times. Her image of chewing on dog bones out of hunger is a bit much.

The plant world for Jahren is full of beauty, and she has a gift for making this world more visible through her writing. Her power with words lies in finding accessible metaphors for the biological systems most of us witness daily but do not fully appreciate. ”A vine’s only weakness is its weakness,” she observes. “It desperately wants to grow as tall as a tree, but it doesn’t have the stiffness necessary to do it politely. Vines are not sinister; they are just hopelessly ambitious.” 

Jahren’s book is sprinkled with nuanced observations about the plant world. In contrast, her perception of the world of people is black and white. Perhaps influenced by her bipolar disease, she sees only two types of people: good ones and bad ones. The book often gets bogged down with these people, particularly with her defensiveness surrounding her relationship with her longtime assistant, Bill. 

In the end, Lab Girl devolves into a series of personal vignettes that lose the thread of narrative. Nonetheless, Jahren makes an important plea for environmental sustainability. Her readers, armed with an enhanced appreciation of the “other world” of plants, may thereby become more adroit in their efforts to preserve our vanishing resources. ::

Dr. Sugarman, a Santa Rosa dermatologist, chairs the SCMA Editorial Board.

SONOMA MEDICINE  |  Summer 2016  |  Sonoma County Medical Association

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