On October 23, 2017, the Arnold Arboretum hosted Dr. A. Hope Jahren, author of the New York Times Best Seller, Lab Girl, for a very special talk delving into her life as a scientist, mother, and friend, and her lifelong relationship with plants. The sold-out event drew a crowd of over 100 people including people new to the world of science, all of whom had found a common thread in Lab Girl.
We sat down with Dr. Jahren to get a closer look at the person behind this highly acclaimed book.
What inspired you to write Lab Girl?
I’ve studied plants and how they work and been a professor for 21 years now, and I had reached the point in my career where I was supposed to write a textbook. Well, I tried hard to write that textbook and I failed, because I couldn’t talk about what we had learned without talking about the “how,” the “why,” and the people who were important to the process. When you put all those stories together, you don’t really get a textbook. Finally I just stopped worrying about what type of book it was going to be and decided to stop not letting myself write it. I’m still not sure what it is, but it’s been a real surprise and a joy to hear that people have found something good in it.
Scientists do a lot of writing, but we write for each other in a very constricted community. I wanted to talk to a new set of people. I had started to go to conferences and think, “My god, we are the only 20 people who care about this topic!” Since I wrote this book, I’ve been talking to a lot more people. It would be hard to go back to those smaller conversations. I’m also still trying to figure out where my voice is most useful, and I think it will take me some time to find the answer.
Young women in science have found your story to be particularly inspirational and empowering. Was it your intent to write a book that would encourage women to enter the sciences?
I have been asked to get involved in a lot of programs designed to “turn young girls into scientists,” and it’s something I have never been completely comfortable with. After all, we don’t have programs designed to turn young boys into nurses (not that it would be a bad idea). We don’t have the same desire to change or “fix” boys as we do girls.
I talk a lot about science writing for the general public. It’s an interesting thing–if you write about science and the reader doesn’t understand what you’ve written, they will actually blame themselves. (Unlike a work of fiction, which they are quicker to label “a lousy book”). For example, let’s say you have a friend who is a really good tennis player, whereas you yourself are not at all athletic. Your birthday rolls around and this friend gives you a tennis racket as a gift. The subtext is that you’re supposed to get off your ass and learn to play tennis, right? The problem with that is that first, it’s not a very nice gift to get. Second, it rarely results in a new tennis player. I think a lot of science writing is similar to getting the tennis racket. It’s a gift with strings attached, and we know that the best gifts are given freely. Good science writing focuses on sharing the gift, and I think that should be true in our programs as well. That’s why I love the Arnold Arboretum–it’s a gift freely given. You can take away whatever you want to from your time here. I think our educational programs with girls need to be much more focused on sharing the gift of science without making it contingent on what they choose to do with it.
So when I asked myself how I could contribute, what I found was that there was no good picture of what a life working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is really like. What are the rewards? How do you spend your days? Who are the people who become important in your life? To answer those questions, I only have one story; I can tell you what happened to me in an honest and three-dimensional way. By sharing my experience of this life, I hope to offer young women the gift of science and the chance to ask themselves, “Is this a life I want to have?”
What are your thoughts on the value of curiosity-driven science, i.e. scientific research that is not necessarily geared toward developing a concrete result or product?
We study and research and investigate because it gives us joy and it makes us grow as people. What I’ve seen is that the more people know about the world, the more they feel like a part of it. As a scientist, you can facilitate that. If people know the names of ten different trees, they can walk down the street and say, “That’s an oak, that’s a maple, that’s a walnut.” I’ve seen how that can raise self-esteem and help people feel like they have a place in the world. And that is something that a new medicine or a faster car or a smoother lipstick cannot give them. So I don’t think we can justify investing in science in terms of material products, and I think it’s wrong to try.
In the book, you mention the national struggle for funding in science, saying, “America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it” (p. 123). What do you think this says about the value the country places on science–particularly in the current political atmosphere where the validity of established scientific fact is being questioned daily?
Let me provide some context for that. Since about 1985, the United States’ amount of spending on non-defense related research has been flat at about two percent of the GDP (gross domestic product). In post-war years, it was many times that, and it continues to be higher in other countries. We have had many administrations since 1985 with many different attitudes towards basic science, and yet that two percent figure has not significantly changed. What’s happening now is an attack on the free speech of scientists–with debates over using the term “climate change” in proposals and stuff like that–but that’s part and parcel with attacks on free speech in other areas as well.
So you don’t think the current political rhetoric will negatively affect the amount of funding available for science?
I’m cynical about that because the long-term numbers have shown that comforting rhetoric hasn’t helped increase science funding.
The other thing that has been happening is that people like me have been educating students since 1985; part of my job is to make more scientists. As we say back home in Iowa, “There’s too many pigs at the trough.” We have too many highly skilled people in science who cannot practice their art because there aren’t enough opportunities, and that is not a recent phenomenon. But, I do think we are at a crucial point in time in that the scientific problems before us are bigger than ever before. We’re using energy and resources at higher rates than ever before. The infrastructure that we built in post-war years is now falling apart. We have trained all these people to work in science and address these issues, but they face extremely high barriers to entry in their fields. So, I think U.S. science is at a breaking point that’s been coming for a long time.
I don’t want to let this recent administration off; I’m certainly worried about how it is dismantling things right and left. As with trees, programs and institutions are a lot easier to cut down than they are to grow. The structure of the world is changing, and I believe another long-term political trend to expect is that we as individuals are going to have to search our values and decide which institutions matter to us. Which are the institutions that support and better our communities–libraries, theaters, schools, arboreta, hospitals. We are going to have to step up and support these places because it could be bad weather for a while. All the institutions that have always been there for us and that we depend upon regardless of our politics are going to need our help to weather what’s coming.
In addition to discussing the high competition for jobs in science fields, the book also explores the complex struggles many women face in male-dominated fields. Is there any advice you would offer to young women at the beginning of their scientific careers such as our female students, researchers, and fellows here at the Arboretum?
The most important advice I give people is to learn how to reward themselves. We tend to think a lot about the parts of ourselves where we need to do better. But, I advise people to get more closely in touch with the parts of themselves that feel good, that are fun, that they are proud of and enjoy–whether it’s being behind a microscope, being out in nature, watering plants in the greenhouse, or what have you. Figure out what you like, why you like it, and then make sure you keep doing it. When you learn how to reward yourself, you stop being so dependent on external forces to make you feel like what you’re doing is worthy. Many of those external rewards–medals, prizes, etc.–are built on fundamentally unjust structures. I’m saying this as somebody who has been well-rewarded by science: even when those external rewards come, they don’t come at the right time, or they don’t come for the right reasons or from the right places, and, frankly, they don’t go to the right people. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and I can honestly say that I didn’t spend all that time in the labs for the chance of external rewards–I did it because it felt good. Some days were thrillingly exciting but some days were just filled with tedious legwork, gathering data, and waiting for results that would never come. Even during the worst and most despondent times in my life, there was never a day when I was sorry I had spent my time thinking about and working in science.
So if you know how to reward yourself and you chase those rewards, you’ll have a strong internal compass for why you do this work, and you will always be doing it for the right reasons. Even on the days you find out that you’re working in a deeply flawed, unfair system that seems hopeless or lacking in opportunities, you can still say, “I’m glad I spent my day this way.”
Throughout the book, you draw parallels between your own life and the lives of various plants (e.g. the story of the blue spruce tree on pp. 27–29). Can you talk a little bit about that pattern, and was there a particular point you wanted to emphasize with it?
The structure of the book, which goes back and forth between science and many other areas – is something I never thought twice about because it’s based on the structure of my life. For a few hours I would think very deeply about what it means to have bark, and get lost in those thoughts. Then I would do something with my hands in the lab. Then I would eat some candy with Bill [my lab partner], go home and deal with my kid, or something else. While I’m at home, I’m thinking about plants, and while I’m with the plants, I’m wondering where my kid is. That is an authentic representation of scientists’ lives and of how they incorporate what they study into how they live. So that was the only natural structure that the book could take.
In Lab Girl, I talk about plants growing and myself growing–plants reproducing and myself reproducing. Are these things metaphors? I’m not sure. What I have learned from the experience of writing this book is that if you peel something back to its most essential form–and you think you’re getting really specifically down to the heart of it–once you write it down and step back, you realize that it means more than one thing to more than one person. So that was an interesting journey where by striving toward the specific and authentic telling of my own story, I actually got to a place that turned out to be highly relatable to a lot of different kinds of people.
A lot of science going back to the seventies focuses on diversity. Whereas a lot of the work I’ve done is returning to generalities like, “What does it mean to be alive?” What can we say about what all living things do? They all grow, they all reproduce, they all heal themselves when sick, they all store against hard times. That’s true for an earthworm, a cockroach, me and you, and a plant. If we look at how they do it, we start to see differences, but if we look at why they do it, we see similarity. There seems to be value in thinking deeply about the universal and writing about it.
Lab Girl is a very personal and intimate story–do you feel that there were any negatives to sharing your life in this way?
If you write a book about your life and you’re really honest, people are going to judge you–that’s how it works. You can’t control that. I knew that would happen going in, but I also knew the one comfort I would have was to be able to say to myself, “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change a word”–to write it so authentically that regardless of the reaction, it couldn’t be any other way. Once it was written, I had to let go of it and let people form their judgements. But, I’ve found that people respond positively to authenticity and honesty. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that several hundred people would read my story and that it would be translated into 22 languages and that people at the Arnold Arboretum would take time out of their evenings to hear me talk. That still baffles me, but I’m grateful. I think it’s proof that we all have stories that are precious and that the effort to share them is never wasted.