A tough, tender memoir about plants and and a scientist

Review: Vivien Horler

Lab Girl – A story of trees, science and love, by Hope Jahren (Fleet)

When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.

That is an early sentence in this wonderful book, first published in 2016 but only now discovered by me.

It is by a distinguished American scientist who does research into paleobiology, a field which, according to Wikipedia, combines the methods and findings of biology with the methods and findings of paleontology. So a bit of a mix of biology and fossils.

Professor Hope Jahren is also a woman, which may be what gives her a warm take on her work. She has won academic prizes, published in scores of journals, and has won three Fulbright awards.

But this book is a memoir and while it contains plenty of biology and lots of trees, leaves and seeds, it is also about her life, her beloved co-scientist Bill, her determination to succeed as a woman in what is still very much a man’s world, her and Bill’s sometimes decidedly whacky field trips, her husband and her son.

She describes her memoir as a book of stories, interleaving chapters about her life with brief chapters on plants, seeds, mosses and soils.

One of her stories is about a special tree, a blue-tinged spruce of about 80 years, which grew outside her bedroom window when she was a child.

The young Hope climbed it, hugged it, and sat in its shade. But in May of 2013, she says, her tree made a terrible mistake. Assuming winter was over, the tree grew a new crop of needles, only to be surprised by a rare spring blizzard.

Conifers can stand heavy snow, but not when they also have to bear the weight of their new spring foliage. The branches bowed and broke off, leaving a tall, bare trunk. Her parents had the tree cut down.

Jahren, who is of Norwegian descent, always knew she wanted to be a scientist and have her own laboratory, because her father was one and as a child she spent hours in his laboratory. It was her safe space.

As a graduate student assistant instructor she met Bill on a six-week field trip in California, and they formed a rock-solid partnership that was to hugely enrich their lives both professionally and personally. Bill has a very dry sense of humour, but one that Jahren certainly appreciated, and her verbatim description of their various exchanges is one of the hilarious delights of the book.

Eventually she got her laboratory and began researching and teaching, first at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and later at Johns Hopkins University.

There is humour, love, self-doubt and determination in this book, and also a lot of science. One of the experiments she and Bill did while working at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu involved sweet potatoes.

They had been growing the sweet potatoes under the type of greenhouse gas levels predicted for the next few hundred years, “the levels we’re likely to see if we, as a society, do nothing about carbon emissions”.

As expected, the potatoes grew bigger as the carbon dioxide increased, but the vegetables turned out to be less nutritious and much lower in protein content, despite increased doses of fertiliser.

She writes: “This was a surprise. It is also bad news, because the poorest and hungriest nations of the world rely on sweet potatoes for a significant amount of dietary protein. It looks as if the bigger potatoes of the future might feed more people while nourishing them less.”

People’s depredation of the planet is a burning concern. She points out: “People don’t know how to make a leaf, but they know how to destroy one. In the last 10 years, we’ve cut down more than 50 billion trees.”

Despite this, Lab Girl is in no way a depressing read. Jahren describes the miracle of biology and life on this planet in a way that makes the reader consider the glory of what we still have. And then we need to think about how we can make our world safe for plants, ourselves, seeds yet to sprout, and our unborn grandchildren.

I enjoyed Lab Girl very much.



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