Book Notes: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren


This is one of those books that I count as a happy surprise. If I had stumbled across it in a store or at the library, I would not have been likely to pick it up. A book on plants crossed with the memoir of a geobotanist? Just completely outside my typical areas of interest.

But here is where book club saved me. I was looking for some non-fiction and something we hadn’t read before as a group. This certainly qualified and with some hesitancy, I added it to the our list. I’m glad I did. Everyone liked it.

I was completely caught off guard by both the quality and poetic nature of her writing. She writes with equal passion and authority on both plants and her own life. The chapters alternate between erudite capsules on plant life and her own very moving personal story of growing up in a cold household, her struggles with manic-depression, what it takes to succeed and thrive as a woman scientist and mostly with her off-kilter and enduring friendship with her lab partner.

Worth reading for the writing, for the insights and for the peek into both plant life and a life dedicated to science.


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren 

Read: 2/27/17 – 3/14/17


Amazon page for details and reviews

Find at your local library



My Notes & Quotes

  • People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They’re wrong. What comes first is a question. It’s not nearly as involved as people make it out to be.
  • There is no shame in breaking something, only in not being able to fix it
  • navigating the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing it’s more than people want to see
  • science for war will always pay better than science for knowledge
  • He is strong where I am week, and so together we make one complete person, each of us gaining half of what we need from the world and the other half from each other.
  • Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to service happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life
  • Working in a hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut and help.
  • I would take the long, lonely journey toward adulthood with the dogged faith of the pioneer who has realized that there is no promised land but still holds out hope that the destination will be someplace better than here.
  • Leaves make sugar. Plants are the only things in the universe that can make sugar out of nonliving inorganic matter. All the sugar that you have ever eaten was first made within a leaf. It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.
  • This transition between doing what you’re told and telling yourself what do generally occurs midway through a dissertation. In many ways, it is the most difficult and terrifying that that a student can do.
  • I looked forward to my analyses with the same happy anticipation one brings to a baseball game: anything might happen, but will probably take a long time.
  • It taught me the most important thing I know about science: that experiments are not about getting the world to do what you want it to do.
  • It was a new idea, my first real leaf. Just like every other audacious seedling in the world, I would make it up as I went along.
  • America may say it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it. Within environmental science in particular, we see the crippling effects that come from having been resource-hobbled for decades: degrading farmland, species extinction, progressive deforestation…this list goes on and on.
  • We laughed out our joy and thanksgiving that we had somehow cheated Death and cheated him big-time. Our great good luck was a gift from Heaven and had revealed a world that was too sweet to leave. We would have another undeserved day and we would have it together
  • Did they explain to Stephen that there was a very real chance that he’d enrage people with his great new taken things? Of course he was supremely pious and all that, but didn’t he feel like a bit of a sucker nonetheless? The Bible is always short on details.
  • We both kept working, kept pouring on doors, and kept believing that eventually they would have to start opening.
  • Love and learning are similar in that they can never be wasted.
  • In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.
  • I sat directly in front of him, held my head up, and watched. I watched him, as a clear-eyed witness of what he was doing and of what he was, of all of it. There at the end of the world, he danced in the broad and endless daylight, and I accepted him for what he was, instead of for what he wished he could be. The potency of my acceptance made me wonder, just a little, if I could turn it inward and accept myself. I didn’t know, but I promised myself that I would figure it out on another day. Today was already taken. Today was for watching a great man dance in the snow.
  • I was stunned to find that the ultimate proof of love for me was nothing heroic, but an easy superfluous gesture performed just to make me smile. The love that I had to give someone had been packed too tightly and too long in a small box, and so it all tumbled out when opened.
  • The heaviness of opening your eyes the next morning when you realize you’ve begun another day of grief, so pervasive that it removes even the taste from food that you eat.
  • My first task would always be to kick a hole in the world and make a space for him where he could safely be his eccentric self
  • There are two ways to deal with a major setback: one is to pause, take a deep breath, clear your mind and go home, distract yourself for the evening, and come back fresh the next day to start over. The other is to immediately re-submerge, put your head under and dive to the bottom, work an hour longer than you did last night, and stay in the moment of what went wrong. While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries.
  • I have learned that raising a child is essentially one long, slow agony of letting go
  • “Why? I don’t know,” I admitted, then added, “It takes a long time to turn into what you’re supposed to be.”
  • Life and love are like butter and do not keep: They both have to be made fresh every day.

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