Lab Girl

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Book Cover for Lab Girl by Hope JahrenLab Girl

Hope Jahren

Club Selection for April 2017

Pages: 290 / Audio: 11 Hrs 45 mins
Published April 5th 2016 by Knopf (first published March 1st 2016)
 
Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

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About the Author

 

Goodreads Author Hope Jahren

HOPE JAHREN

Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist who has been pursuing independent research in paleobiology since 1996, when she completed her PhD at UC Berkeley and began teaching and researching first at the Georgia Institute of Technology and then at Johns Hopkins University. She is the recipient of three Fulbright Awards and is one of four scientists, and the only woman, to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the Earth Sciences. Currently, she is a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where in 2008 she built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories, with support from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health.

Interviews & Other Cool Stuff

 

 

 
PBS NEWSHOUR
The secret life of plants — and ‘Lab Girl’ author Hope Jahren
May 24, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT

 

'Lab Girl': An Homage To The Wonders Of All Things Green
April 22, 20165:10 AM ET
Heard on Morning Edition

Listen below or get the transcript here

Book Club Mojo

Donna hosted the meeting for Lab Girl and pulled together a beautiful evening full of great discussion and delicious food themed after the book; Potato Dumplings (a true labor of love) and Hungarian Goulash. She also prepared a fresh Cucumber Tomato Salad and served Pickled Beet Salad from Trader Joes. We were all so busy talking and enjoying the meal that we forgot to take photos of the evening so you'll want to look over Donna's recipes and give them a try to experience Lab Girl more fully!

Discussion Questions

Source: Litlovers

1. How did Jahren's upbringing help determine her dedication to science? Consider her father's background as a science teacher and her mother's love of English literature.

2. One of the literary tropes Jahren uses in her memoir is the comparison of plant life with human life. Talk about the parallels she draws between her subjects and herself. In what ways are we all similar to our rooted, blossoming brethren? Do you see those parallels in your own life?

3. What do you find most remarkable in Jahren's descriptions of the wonders of the natural world? Consider, for instance, the sheer numbers of the plant world. Or how the willow tree clones itself...or the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi...or the airborne signals of trees in their perennial war against insects.

4. Talk about Jahren's struggle with manic depression and how it has affected her life and work.

5. How would you describe Jahren's relationship with her lab partner Bill? What makes both professional and personal relationship work?

6. Describe some of the hardships that make life for any scientist difficult—bucking the status quo, the often endless waiting for results, the grunt work, or the scarcity of funding.

7. Will you ever take a tree—or any plant life—for granted again?

 

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Source: Penguin Random House

1. Lab Girl opens with a detailed description of the laboratory Jahren loved as a child. How does she transform a cinder-block room stocked with scientific equipment into a “castle” (p. 8)?  In what ways do her recollections of her time in the lab and the trips home late at night with her father evoke the mood and magic of fairy tales? 

2. Jahren writes of the emotional distances between members of a Scandinavian family, of “growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves” (p.11). Are Jahren’s feelings about her family shaped solely by cultural tradition? 

3. Does Jahren’s observation that “being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right” (p. 16) capture something you have experienced, either as a parent or child? Why do you think Jahren dedicated Lab Girl to her mother? 

4. Jahren writes, “I chose science because science gave me what I needed—a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be” (p. 18).  Discuss and evaluate the combination of elements that determine her choice, including her attachment to her father and the recognition that “being a scientist wasn’t his job, it was his identity,” the acceptance by her science professors of “the very attributes that rendered me a nuisance to all of my previous teachers,” and her simple declaration that the desire to become a scientist “was founded upon a deep instinct and nothing more.”  Compare this initial explanation with the self-portrait she offers in the final chapter (p. 277).
 [eallen1]Per text of book. 

5. In alternating chapters, Jahren forges links between her own life and the plants that have populated it. How does the story of the blue spruce tree (pp. 27–29) set a pattern that is echoed and enhanced throughout the book? What insights do these close examinations of a large variety of plants provide into the needs and the capabilities shared by all living things? Is there a particular topic—for instance, the universal struggle for survival or the interdependence evident in nature—that resonates with you?

6. In recalling her first scientific breakthrough, Jahren writes, “On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known” (p. 71).  What are the emotional and practical repercussions of this moment?  Is there a moment in most people’s lives that marks a line between who they are and who they might have been?

7. Jahren describes her struggles with mental illness in a gripping and vivid interlude (pp. 144–47).  Why do you think she introduces this at the midpoint of her book?

8. Jahren’s relationship with Bill is a sustained theme in Lab Girl.  In what ways do Bill’s manner and methods in the lab complement Jahren’s?  What qualities shape their behavior toward each other on a personal level? Discuss the sense of intimacy and tolerance at the core of their friendship, as well as the boundaries they establish.  What do their long conversations, their reactions to institutional rules, and the misadventures they share on their field trips all add to the book?  In what ways does their trip to the Arctic capture the essence of their bond (pp. 195–201)?

9. What previously hidden aspects of Jahren’s character come to light as she describes her meeting and marriage to Clint (pp. 205–209)?  

10. Jahren writes of her pregnancy, “I know that I am supposed to be happy and excited. . . . I am supposed to celebrate the ripening fruit of love and luxuriate in the fullness of my womb. But I don’t do any of this” (p. 217).  How do such factors as her childhood, her professional ambitions, and her mental illness affect her experience? Why does she “decide that I will not be this child’s mother. Instead, I will be his father” (p. 228). 

11. What obstacles does Jahren face in her career as a research scientist?  Are some of the setbacks Jahren faces attributable to her being a woman in a male-dominated field? 

12. Do you agree that “America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it” (p. 123)?

13. Science writing is sometimes criticized for seeming to anthropomorphize scientific subjects. Do you think that Jahren avoids this potential pitfall? In what ways do her choice of words and use of metaphor balance the scientific facts that she wants to convey with having the reader understand and even delight in these facts? What facts did you find most interesting?

14. As you read Lab Girl, were you equally engaged with the autobiographical sections and the chapters on plants and trees, or did you find yourself more drawn to one or the other? 

15. Lab Girl makes use of a wide range of language and tones, from the scientific to the colloquial, from biblical references to profanity. Does this range subvert our expectations about how scientists “should” talk? What do the different tones reveal about Hope? How does her varied language help us to see her in multiple lights—as scientist and writer, as friend and human?

16. Memoir is a highly intimate form. Do you feel you’ve gotten to know Hope through Lab Girl? Does she seem similar or different to science teachers you have had? Do you see her as an inspiration for young women who want to pursue a career in science?

 

 

Happy Reading!

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