‘Lab Girl’: The Pursuit of Sanctuary, and Science, Inside the Lab

16:38 minutes

In her memoir Lab Girl, geobiologist Hope Jahren unlocks the secrets of plants: “The first real leaf is a new idea…it has to work harder than everything above it, all the while enduring a misery of shade.” Along the way, Jahren uncovers the personal discoveries behind the pursuit of science.

Segment Guests

Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren is an author and geobiologist at the University of Hawaii.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Have you ever considered the life of a plant? If you think about it from the plant’s point of view, you’d realize it is filled with all kinds of drama, all the unknowns that unfold while it tries to establish itself from the ground up, the struggle for resources in an overcrowded and hostile landscape, and the balance of relationships it needs to maintain between unsympathetic competitors and loyal allies.

My next guest has though a lot about this. She found it can be pretty similar to the life of a scientist. In her new book, Lab Girl, she uncovers the secret life of plants. She also writes about the personal side of being a scientist that we don’t usually hear about, from dumpster diving for lab equipment to her Bonnie and Clyde relationship with her lab partner, Bill.

Hope Jahren is the author of Lab Girl. She is also a geobiologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu. Welcome to the show, Hope.

HOPE JAHREN: Thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You can read an excerpt from this book on our website, sciencefriday.com/labgirl. If you’ve got a question for Hope Jahren about life in the lab, give us a call, 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK, or you can tweet us @scifri.

You said that you know scientists who study birds, and that’s great and all, but it’s just not interesting to you. But you are really, really interested in leaves and plants. What got you so interested?

HOPE JAHREN: It’s not fair to say that I’m totally uninterested. And I very much respect people who study other organisms, with the exception of one organism, the tardigrade, which I make a great show of being vehemently opposed to on Twitter just because I think it’s funny. People fight about all kinds of stuff on Twitter, so why shouldn’t I be on there being unreasonable about tardigrades? [LAUGHS] But anyway.

What I meant to illustrate by that is that I don’t have that particular draw toward birds. You know, I know people that will go out and sit in the rain for days and go around the world to dangerous places in the hopes of just crossing paths with this bird. And I don’t get that.

But then again, [LAUGHS] I’ll go halfway around the world to see a place where a tree used to be. I’ve worked in the Arctic for years, and there are certainly no trees up there now, but you uncover the rocks, you dig down a little bit, and good grief, there used to be forests up there. And I can get close to those leaves. They’ve been waiting for me for 45 million years it seems when I’m up there.

And so it’s hard to put into words that draw that comes from deep, deep inside. But I believe that a lot of scientists have that toward their study organism, or toward their study model, or toward their system or machine or whatever it is, is that we’re drawn to these things in a way that makes us gladly, gladly pay the price of long hours and isolation and all these kinds of things. And that’s the story that I really wanted to tell.

JOHN DANKOSKY: When did you start to realize that you had this deep connection to the natural world and also to the world of science?

HOPE JAHREN: Well that’s an important story for me is that my father was a community college instructor. He instructed just hundreds of students. He instructed students, and then he instructed their kids. And he instructed my teachers. It was a rural area in southern Minnesota.

And he was a physics teacher. Physics was his great love. And he taught for 42 consecutive years at a community college.

And he ran a lab. He had a teaching lab where he had the demonstrations and students could do stuff. And we were his kids, and so we were always around the lab waiting for him to get done or grade. My family was always working, so after dinner you did some work. And we went into the lab with him and did stuff until it was time to go to bed.

And so as a very little girl my earliest memories are being in the lab, and the way the cement felt, and the way it smelled, and the way the countertops looked, and it just being this wonderful, warm, happy place where it was just full of toys. But they weren’t really toys. They were serious. And I could do anything I wanted with them, because my father was endlessly patient in terms of letting us take it all out and do whatever we wanted and fix it, but also treated us like we were important. We were his colleagues, and we were helping him do this stuff. And it was something that I couldn’t imagine not having in my life.

I remember being tiny and thinking, when I grow up, my lab is going to have this, and we’re going to do it this way. And that always stayed with me. And I think that’s what’s held me in science all these years, not the formal education I received, but going back to those very early days.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Going back to those early days and just the love of being around the lab in that world, it’s so interesting different people’s perceptions. You know, my mom worked in a lab in a hospital, and all I remember was feeling like I was going to break something. There were these harsh overhead fluorescent lights. It felt to me unwelcoming. But you write about the lab as a sanctuary, a place of warmth.

HOPE JAHREN: Well, I did break things.


And the lights were harsh. But it’s not about breaking things, it’s about fixing things. And there isn’t anything in the world that can’t be fixed by some combination of love and work. I do believe that, and I’ve seen it in my own life. And I’m so fortunate I get the chance to say it. It’s a whole book, and that’s really all it says.

JOHN DANKOSKY: The book is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, who joins us on the program today. If you want to join us, 844-724-8255. She writes about her life in the lab and also about her work with plants.

You study the carbon isotope composition of terrestrial land plants. So what does that mean and tell us why this is important?

HOPE JAHREN: [LAUGHS] I know. It’s funny. You know, you say that, and you realize that it’s this code. That’s the best way to describe what I do, and that’s the way I describe it on reports, and that’s what I’m paid to do. But it’s a string of words that the vast majority of people couldn’t understand. And that’s funny. Think about that for a minute.

But here’s what it really means. It means that I’m interested in life on land. I’m interested in how the bare bones of the planet, things that aren’t alive, are transformed into things that are alive. And the very, very front end of that.

So we’ve got the atmosphere. We’ve got sunlight. We’ve got water. These are things you can point to and say, they’re not alive.

And the very, very first transformations are done by plants. They turn it into– sugar is the very first step. They take energy from the sun and carbon from the atmosphere and bang! You’ve got a sugar.

And plants I’m using loosely there, because there’s plants in the ocean. Then there’s plants on land. And my specialty is the plants on land, which include all the great plants, as I like to say. The trees that live for hundreds of years and weigh several, several tons, and the plants that are so dependent on water, but gosh, they climbed up on land to the place where there wasn’t any and somehow made a go of it. And it’s like this impossible, impossible problem that they solved. And they solved it really well. And I love it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Hm. I want to ask you to read a part of your book where you describe the life of a vine. Could you do this for us?

HOPE JAHREN: Yes. “A vine makes it up as it goes along. The copious flying seeds that rain down from the top of the forest sprout easily, but only rarely take root. Green and malleable, they search frantically for something to cling to, some scaffolding that will provide the strength that they so completely lack.”

Vines resolve to fight their way up to the light by any means necessary. They do not play by the rules of the forest. They place their roots in one optimal spot and grow their leaves elsewhere, a different optimum usually several trees over. They are the only plant on land that grows farther sideways than it does up.

Vines steal. They steal patches of light left unattended and rivulets of rain. Vines do not enter into apologetic symbiosis, but instead grow bigger at every opportunity, a dead scaffold being just as good as a living one.”

JOHN DANKOSKY: So many of your descriptions of plant life and process in the book is just beautiful. I guess I’m wondering if you can talk about that in contrast to the somewhat sterile things you have to write in your day job. I mean, the scientific papers have a very different tone and feel, and they can be impenetrable to people. I guess I’m wondering why in science there has to be this difference, right? That way of describing the vine is something that we can all relate to, but the way that you might have to describe it in your scientific paper is something that many people would never be able to grasp.

HOPE JAHREN: Yeah, and that’s been an interesting thing that I’ve had the opportunity to think very deeply about. I have a lot of ideas about how that sanitizing process is meant to protect science, to protect its elite status as not something everyone can do, and how better to do that than to talk about it in a way that not everybody can understand? And so with this book I’ve decided to break all of those rules.

By saying that a plant chooses where to grow, I’ve broken a rule. I’m supposed to say that a plant establishes itself under optimum resources, or something like that. But by doing that, I’ve done a couple things. I’ve taken it out of the realm of your everyday words. And I’ve also adopted a tone that’s meant to detach you from the intuitive experiences that you have, that you might relate or sympathize to what I’m saying.

And so I’ve decided to break all those rules. I don’t know what the punishment will be, but I’ve surely done it.

The other thing that I’d like to say is that writing is a gift. It’s a gift. And it’s up to the recipient to decide if it’s a good gift or not. And we’ve all gotten gifts that are like, you know, you know somebody who’s a great tennis player. And you’re not an athlete, but they give you a tennis racquet for Christmas. And you kind of feel like, well, I’m supposed to go ahead and play tennis, and nah nah nah nah nah.

And I think a lot of science writing is like that. It’s some great tennis player giving you a tennis racquet whether you want it or not. This is more like me wondering about you and crafting something that I hope you’ll like, wrapping it up, handing it over, and waiting to see. And right now, the book just came out. I’m waiting to see. And it’s a really special time for me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, I wonder if some scientists worry about the risk of anthropomorphizing, about saying that the vine of the tree is making its own choices. It’s telling an imprecise story about how the tree actually works and makes decisions.

HOPE JAHREN: Yeah, it’s funny because when scientists read this book, the big comment that I get is that, I wrote in there, and I don’t know the exact sentence off the top of my head, but I wrote, plants are the only organisms that can turn inorganic matter into sugar. And I get incredibly upset responses from scientists over that. You’d think I was inciting people to violence by writing that sentence.

It’s really amazing. And they say, you don’t mean plants. You mean autotrophs. And you are not necessarily incorporating unicellular autotrophs into that description, et cetera.

And what I’ve done there, and trust me, I thought a lot. I thought about every sentence in this book, and I was absolutely pig-headed about keeping terminology out of it to the biggest extent possible. I gave myself a structure, and I said, I’m not going to violate that structure by introducing scientific terms. And so if I sacrificed some of the precision associated by saying plants, when what I really mean [LAUGHS] it is a multicellular and unicellular eukaryotic and prokaryotic autotrophs, then that’s the price we’re just going to have to pay to talk to a new group of people.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m sure that our listeners will forgive you. I’m John Dankosky. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And we’re talking with Hope Jahren about her new book, Lab Girl.

When we hear about a scientist who has their own lab, it sounds like you’ve reached a goal, but you really show that labs are always scrambling for funding. Can you talk about the problem of finding funding to do the work you love?

HOPE JAHREN: It’s painful. And I’ve been funded. And I’m very grateful for the funding. It’s never enough.

I’m very sensitive to the facts that this comes from tax dollars, from people who work long hours and don’t love their jobs. And the only way I can be grateful for that is to assure them that I stretch every nickel into a quarter. And so we’ve always been able to survive, basically, by promising that we’ll do in $5 worth of work for every dollar you give us, but that’s not a general solution.

If you look at the numbers, there’s simply not enough funding out there to support scientists to do the work that they were trained to do. And that’s a problem because if you talk to the public, all these polls say that the public is very supportive of science. They want to see science grow in America, et cetera. And I don’t think they realize that we’re at the breaking point.

Funding for non-defense related research has been flat for 30 years. Every administration. Maybe the parties talk differently about how they support science, but when it comes right down to it, it’s been flat. And all this time we have been educating generation after generation of scientists as best we possibly could. And they want to do science. And there’s just too many hyenas at the carcass [LAUGHS] is how I put it sometimes.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You grapple with something else that has been part of the conversation around science is the role of women in the sciences and the pervasive sexism and harassment that you’ve had to face. Talk about that for just a moment, if you will– because we just have a little bit of time left, but– how you’re maybe bringing in a slightly different narrative than the one we’ve had in the past about women in the sciences.

HOPE JAHREN: I get asked about that, but I’m not saying anything shocking or even controversial. I’m saying that the basic power imbalance between men and women that we have learned and we have accepted as part of what glues our society together and that the violence and harm that is a product of that learned imbalance is also expressed within the confines of science. That we’re not free of it. And that it has some special expressions due to the special activities that women find themselves doing, like working alone in labs, like traveling for field trips, et cetera.

And so I’ve been surprised that I’m getting such a strong reaction for that, because I really don’t feel like, of all the things I say, I feel like that’s the least controversial thing I’ve brought up.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Hm. Hope Jahren is the author of Lab Girl. She’s also a geobiologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu. Read an excerpt from this book at our website, sciencefriday.com/labgirl. And it is a wonderful memoir. Thank you so much, Hope, for being here. I appreciate it.

HOPE JAHREN: You’re welcome.

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