Editor’s reading list: ‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren

Cover artwork for "Lab Girl" by Hope Jahren. (Dene Dryden | Collegian Media Group)

I very much enjoy reading nonfiction, particularly memoirs. This is evidenced by the now 3:1 ratio of nonfiction to fiction books in this review series. My latest read was Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl,” a memoir detailing her life as a budding geobiologist.

“Lab Girl” is structured into three parts, referencing the building blocks of both trees and her life: Roots and Leaves, Wood and Knots, Flowers and Fruit. Each segment of Jahren’s life story, from her time as a small Minnesotan girl playing in her father’s lab to when she becomes a parent herself, is often preceded by a plant-derived anecdote of growth and weathering change.

In her memoir, Jahren recounts the trials and triumphs of her life thus far, keeping the reader engaged with her quick humor and craft for delicately prompting intrigue. Through the memoir, the reader witnesses Jahren’s development as a person and scientist. Even in instances where life seemed mundane — running lab tests with her steadfast friend Bill, placing hackberry pit shavings under a microscope — Jahren always derives a story, a perspective to learn from.

The short stories of plant growth that come before many longer chapters elegantly set up the scene for the next part of Jahren’s story. Even if the snippet of plant knowledge does not quite match the events of the chapter, the emotional response and wonder it invokes carries the connection between the two.

Though I am keen to memoirs, Jahren’s story captured me in a way that many others have not. Perhaps it was the root-to-rise, chronological path she took when organizing the book? Maybe it was her candidness about the financial tribulations of being a young scientist or her openness with her mental health struggles.

Reading Jahren’s memoir felt as if I were picking her brain, asking her to tell me more stories while we sat together on a loveseat. Her writing is that candid, that close to the heart. She managed to capture the danger and fluster of every critical emotional moment of her life without underplaying her feelings at the time. Her prose is refined beautifully so that it reads truly like a reflection without revision of the past.

In that sense, Jahren and I conversed on the couch, cupping mugs of coffee.

Through her work, friendship, loves and multiple moves across the United States, it is easy to stick with Jahren for the ride. Readers have much to learn from “Lab Girl” with both Jahren’s life experiences and the small knowledge bursts about plants she has sewn into her tale.

This is a read I believe anyone can enjoy, but scientists may feel more at home with this novel. Female scientists, people studying to do science, plant and Earth lovers in general: this is a memoir that will fulfill you, a story that will prompt inspiration for your own.

Dene Dryden is the Collegian’s editor-in-chief and a junior in English. The views and opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

I'm Dene Dryden, and I graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor's of Arts in English. Before graduating, I worked at the Collegian for more than three years as a copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief. I also served a term on the Collegian Media Group Board of Directors. While at K-State, I also worked at Wildcat 91.1 FM. My cat Robyn is the light of my life, and I take compliments in the form of coffee.