October 19, 2018

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

By Crystal Mendoza

By: TL Jordan

Representation is incredibly important. Not just in our media, but in our everyday lives. When we are young we look up to people and dream about seeing ourselves in their shoes. Young children look to see themselves reflected in everyday life as teachers, astronauts, politicians, actors, artists, scientists, and so much more. It is also just as important that we continue to see representation as we get older.  Lab Girl is an extremely good example of the honest representation of a woman in science.

Courtesy of MPR and Knopf

Though we have moved forward in seeing more women in tenured research positions, but that portrayal is not always honest. We see these women, but we don’t see the struggle, the harassment, the pain. We don’t see the odds that they overcame, and the hard work they put in to keep their heads above water in a field that is dominated by white cishet men.

Hope Jahren, a Minnesota native, lays out her entire journey from child to tenured researcher in this memoir and interlaces every memory with eloquent narratives on trees and the life of a plant. Anyone who has ever had any aspirations of moving into science, particularly as a person assigned female at birth, will relate to Jahren’s recounting of being a young inquisitive scientist, as she learns from various people in her life and eventually grows into the scientist she is now. Her story recounts relationships that are difficult to not relate to people in your own life, and absurd scenarios that are so specific you wonder how they even happened to the author herself.

The most important part of this journey, in addition recounting her struggle becoming scientist as a woman, is becoming and continuing to be a scientist while battling mental illness. Jahren recounts her own experiences shadowboxing her invisible demons, and still trying to continue being productive and move her career forward. She does not make her experiences sound pretty, but gives you each difficult detail that truly depicts what it is like to live with mental illness. Mental illness is not talked about enough in science, despite awareness becoming more common place, and mental illness is certainly not talked enough amongst high ranking scientists. As students we hear article on article reminding us that graduate students are the most vulnerable population for depression and anxiety, but we see our mentors and superiors succeeding with no sign that any of them could possible carry the same internal pain. Lab Girl does a great job of smashing that barrier.

Hope Jahren is a very successful scientist, but that success was not handed to her. Her writing is as honest as it is inspiring, and anyone who is a minority in science will find this book to be relatable and important as they fight through their own battles in academia.

About the author: TL Jordan (They/Them) is a second year immunology graduate student working in the Ramirez-Alvarado lab. They passionate about science communication, science advocacy, and LGBTQ equality. In addition to their graduate studies they are the Social Media representative of the Graduate Student Association, the Chair of the LGBTI MERG Student Group, and the assistant goalkeeper coach at RCTC. They believe firmly that science should be accessible to everyone.

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