It is no secret that the field of science is dominated by men. But famed geobiologist Hope Jahren, who has won such prestigious awards as the James B. Macelwane Medal, takes what can often be an oppressive system in stride. “It’s not about whether they approve of my work at Harvard or at whatever journal. This is not about whether my boss is nice to me. This is about me knowing more than I did yesterday.”
In her nationally bestselling book, Lab Girl, which is now out in paperback, Jahren digs into everything from her Minnesota childhood, when she spent hours playing and conducting experiments in her father’s laboratory, to her love of author Jean Genet. But the meat of the book focuses on her incredible determination and drive to study plants, despite the often shocking hurdles that male scientists put in her way. We are also introduced to Bill, her brilliant, eccentric lab partner, who provides inspiration and support when she needs it most. Most striking is how successfully Jahren extends the mantle of scientist to each one of her readers, using terminology that is not only accessible but emotionally arresting. One finds it impossible to read this book and not develop a deeper and more protective connection to the natural world.
I caught up with Hope Jahren this spring, not long after Lab Girl was honored as a finalist for the Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers Award. She spoke to my via phone from her lab in Norway, to discuss the multiple meanings of language, sexism in science, and why finishing a book is like losing a loved one.– Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: What is geobiology?
Hope Jahren: It’s the combination of geology and biology. You can look around you and see all kinds of things that aren’t alive — water, atmosphere, rocks, etcetera, and look at all the things that are alive — plants, little worms, yourself, etcetera, and geobiology is interested in the processes that turn the one into the other.
BNR: Was examining that intersection where you wanted to go when you first undertook your scientific career?
HJ: Well, I was always interested in geology and in physics and chemistry, and those, of course, are the manipulation of things that aren’t alive. It’s much, much easier. We have really good ideas about how gases behave and how liquids behave, and what chemicals do when you mix them. A lot of that stuff was worked out in the 1700s, in the earliest phases of the Enlightenment. But then, when you try to apply those same things and you throw a living organism into the mix, that’s when it all gets amazingly complicated.
It’s like Alice in Wonderland, where it starts out with things you understand and it’s very familiar. Then, all of a sudden, weird stuff starts to happen, and these characters are introduced, and everything becomes very unpredictable. I think when you introduce living organisms into scientific experiments, it’s a very similar thing.
BNR: In the book, you so brilliantly draw connections between the natural world and our thinking about everything from love to work to economics.
HJ: I grew up with biblical literature. I was always taught to interpret its symbols, and that meaning is a tiered thing that exists on many levels, in everything we do, some of it conscious, some of it subconscious, and all of these different levels of meaning contribute to understanding, which is a much more holistic thing. That probably also goes back to some of the earliest reading that my mother and I did on Susan Sontag, who talks a lot about metaphor and things like that. That’s how I was taught to read in general. You read difficult things and you might not know what they mean right away. But through the course of your life, you will be presented with different scenarios and different information, and if you’re patient and you just live life, things will make sense along the way.
With communication, you’ve got something you want to say, and it’s this disembodied message that doesn’t really fit into words. The challenge is to approximate whatever that is as best you can. It’s almost like shooting an arrow toward a target. Sometimes you miss the target altogether, and sometimes you can really stick it in the bull’s-eye. It’s with practice, shooting that same arrow, that you realize what the bull’s-eyes are.
My whole, passionate focus was: How do I distill this plant stuff? I’ve spent decades of my life studying them, but not everybody is going to. The world needs to turn on a lot of other wheels. So if I had a chance to say one thing, to distill it down to its purest, most elegant, spherical form, what would I say? The funny thing is, I think, if you do that work, and you really polish it and it’s just a clear bell ringing on one concept, you just look at the words and you’ll find it means more than one thing.
BNR: That seems to me an extraordinary insight, and a very useful way of thinking about it for writers. That in that effort to distill and capture the idea, the language itself is going to give you all of this extra meaning.
HJ: One standard that I held myself to was that I was going to write a book, and it was going to say everything important that I wanted somebody to know about plants, whether they were taking my class, or in college, or on the street, or whatever, and I was going to not use one word that they had to look up. I was going to come to them and use their words. I held myself to that standard. So when I ran up against a scientific word, I forced myself to choose the best commonly invoked term, and then shape it as precisely I could with accessible adjectives and things like that, and then let go.
BNR: It’s astonishing how well you succeeded at that. In talking about how trees make energy you write: “The plant pigment chlorophyll is a large molecule, and within the bowl of its spoon-shaped structure sits one single precious magnesium atom. The amount of magnesium needed for enough chlorophyll to fuel 35 pounds of leaves is equivalent to the amount of magnesium found in 14 one-a-day vitamins, and it must ultimately dissolve out of bedrock, which is a geologically slow process.” Was it natural for you to talk about the bowl of chlorophyll’s spoon-shaped structure, or was that a kind of image you had to work to craft?
HJ: I use a lot of allusions to feminine objects, to objects associated with female labor: “spoon” of course, and then the one that people often touch on is “a leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace,” which is dishes and lace.
BNR: Did you want to work against the kind of gender prejudices that are in a lot of scientific writing?
HJ: It was not a conscious thing. The first work that I did with my hands was in my father’s lab, but it was also with my mother in the garden and in the kitchen, so those were the objects of my early toolkit. I naturally gravitate toward them. I’ve also always let myself do that, use the objects of my life. But it does create this nice juxtaposition of these very female images with these scientific concepts, which I really like and I think makes me a special voice in the end.
BNR: My favorite adjective in that sentence [with the phrase] “the one single precious magnesium atom” is “precious.” That’s a word that lights up that whole sentence for me.
HJ: The magnesium is associated with feeding — that’s what the plant is doing, trying to feed itself. So there’s this nourishing, maternal thing at work. When I’m saying something like that, I’m trying to poke your subconscious into coming along for the ride. I’ve invoked these symbols that you associate with nourishment, and then I’m going to talk about how the tree nourishes itself. That’s a type of learning that’s really effective. You’ve got to try to engage people both on a conscious level and a subconscious level, otherwise they’ll wander. I also talk a lot about the five senses, how things taste, how they smell, what plants sound like, etcetera.
BNR: There’s a wonderful sort of bookshelf peeking out in different places in this book. In your first encounter with your long-term research partner, Bill, you’re reading a book about Jean Genet.
HJ: Yes. Those are all true stories. I didn’t invoke them for any literary purpose. It’s just what I happened to be doing at the time.
BNR: Were there particular books that were strong influences on you as this book came to be?
HJ: I was greatly influenced by Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, because he’s got this fantastic heroine, Becky Sharp. I wrote an essay on her; it’s on my blog somewhere. I just love her.
I had read so much Victorian literature, and it was sort of constricting. There’s Dickens, who has these amazing characters, but the women are either too good or too bad, and they’re either young ingénues or these old-maid types, and there’s no real place in between. But when I got to Vanity Fair my mind just opened up. Things don’t end particularly well for Becky Sharp, but she doesn’t care. She just asks the question: “How do I get what I want within this very constrained power structure that is supposed to keep me from getting what I want?” She had this freewheeling approach. I thought: If I can be the Becky Sharp of scientific research, then we’ll see how far that goes.
BNR: With a year behind you since the book’s release, and having talked about it in these kinds of conversations with many other people, do you see it differently? Is it more of an artifact for you?
HJ: I think the main feeling I’ve had since the release of the book is really grief, because it was so joyful to sit, and write, and play with the words, and play with the sentences, and read them out loud, and use my mind that way. These were some of the happiest months of my life, and then it was just over. It gives me joy to hear that the book is doing what I hoped it would do: teach people about plants, but it’s been more of a grieving process. This book was my best friend for a long time. I got up early in the morning with it, and it was there when I went to bed. I feel really melancholy about it.
BNR: This really seems to be a story of dealing with the contingency of life and the idea that this work, which requires persistence and long-term effort, can somehow continue in the face of the absolute unpredictability of things.
HJ: Well, that’s one of the main things of the work, this contrast between work and grace. To what extent do things come to you because you work for them, and to what extent do things fall into your life out of grace? I think my personal answer for that is that you work to keep yourself busy while you’re waiting for grace.
BNR: Why did you decide to write a book versus continuing your own scientific writing?
HJ: Scientific writing is great. It’s actually a lot like writing poetry, because you have to condense. You have to put many years of work by many people into a few pages. Then it’s done in this weird, passive, very omniscient third person. Because the point is not how you feel about it. It’s all about advancing the idea.
So by doing that writing, there were huge parts of me I was never going to get to use. I was never going to get to write dialogue. I was never going to get to be funny. You can only report results in the scientific setting, and there are so many things we did that didn’t yield results, but we still learned from them. Scientific writing is a wonderful tradition, but it’s confining.
I remember thinking, “I’m just going to let myself do this. I’m going to drop the ball on all this other stuff people want me to do for six months, and I’m going to stop denying myself this book. And then, whatever happens, happens.” It just got to a point where it was more painful not to write. It took more energy to suppress it than to write it.
BNR: There is a thread that runs through this book about the sexism that exists within the scientific community, and it reflects the power inequities writ large in our culture. I’m curious to know if you feel that things are moving in one direction or another with women in science in particular.
HJ: Is there sexism in science? Yes. Is it getting better? No. There’s this fundamental and culturally learned power imbalance between men and women in our society, and it finds expression within every human endeavor. I tried to talk about the particular ways in which it finds expression within science. It’s flavors of the usual things. It has to do with safety. It has to do with discomfort around female reproduction. It has to do with the policing of female sexuality. All that kind of stuff. And I give examples of when each of those things comes into play.
For me, I think it’s a kind of Becky Sharp strategy. When the rules aren’t fair, you can’t hold yourself to the rules. Now, that doesn’t always work, and there’s a price to be paid, and all that kind of thing, but what I try to drill in is that the real rewards of the job are not ones that could be taken away from me.
I’m also an example of somebody that would have put up with just an endless amount of shit to be able to do that job, just because I loved it so much. But I still resent what I did have to put up with. We need to attack these fundamental power imbalances that exist. Sexual violence, reproductive rights, and compensation for equal labor.
BNR: What you’re suggesting is that these things aren’t any more specific to science than they are to any other particular corner of our world. Simply, as long as we have male supremacy as a feature of our society, it’s going to have all of these dysfunctional effects.
HJ: Exactly. I also didn’t quit science because there’s nowhere to run. Where are you going to go? Where is this Disneyland where I’m going to get equal pay for equal work and all this kind of stuff?
But the other thing is that I never idolized these guys that were giving me crap. The people that I respected did not fit the mold of who was powerful within the structure. That’s what I often tell people, that you have to keep in close touch with the part of it that makes you happy. If it’s being in the lab, if it’s working with your hands, let yourself stop and feel the joy that comes from getting to do that for two hours. If you just focus on that, you’ll always be doing the job for the right reason. The rest of it is just shit you gotta do! [Laughs]
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