LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

I just love taking a punt on a book that in any normal circumstance you wouldn't even look at. Although that cover is certainly worth a second look, extremely appealing. A bookseller, at a bookclub night such as many  independent bookshops run, told us about this book that he had recently read. What at first looks like a scientific geeky nerdy heavy handed botany text is anything but. Lab Girl is the author, Hope Jahren. Hope has spent her whole life in a lab. Growing up in the freezing climes of Minnesota, in a very closed off, emotionally distant Scandinavian family, Hope's life was in the community college laboratory that her father taught physics and earth science in. This was her happy place, her playground, her world, where her passions for discovery, experimentation and problem solving first came together.

From those early beginnings, Hope Jahren is now a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii. She is what is called a geobiologist, applying "the principles and methods of biology and geology to the study of the ancient history of the co-evolution of life and Earth as well as the role of life in the modern world." (Thanks Wikipedia - had no idea where to start defining that.)

She is  very highly regarded and respected in her profession, having won many awards and scholarships. widely published and influential. Her career has taken her from Minnesota to Berkley, Atlanta, Norway, Hawaii. It  hasn't, however, been without its difficulties. Widespread sexual harassment and discrimination have arisen from her working and being successful in a male dominated profession. She is very candid about the difficulties and frustrations in getting funding for research projects, space to build her labs, staff, recognition, and has become somewhat of a spokeswoman for women working in the science/research sector.

But the above is only a very small part of this wonderful book. Not only a memoir, she humanises her science - we feel her love for her work, her sheer passion and joy and in what she discovers - it all comes shining through in this marvellous memoir. Every alternate chapter takes the reader away from the lab, the trials and stresses of Hope being who she is, and takes us into the life of the plant - the backbone of all life on earth. From the soil, the roots, to the leaves, the trunk of the tree, the flowers and the fruit, the tree also becomes as human as we are. Not only is Hope Jahren a gifted scientist and researcher, she is also a most gifted writer.

It's not all test tubes, microscopes, and hours of hard research slog.  There is some raw reading in this: mental illness, depression, and bipolar as well as a harrowing account of childbirth! Reminded me of being back in ante-natal groups having to look interested and engaged listening to other women's accounts - new meaning to sharing and caring.

Most wonderful of all in this memoir is her relationship with fellow genius scientist Bill, who remains her most constant and reliable companion through all these years. I doubt she would have achieved all she has without Bill's constancy. A most unusual man, happy to take second seat, he looks out for her, and she in turn looks out for him. Together they are unstoppable.

Educational and inspiring, this is an unusual book. It may well take a chapter or two to get into as the writing is intense and the style takes a bit of getting used to, it is sort of all over  the place, but it just makes it that much more memorable. One of my favourites this year. 

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