Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2017)

It is a strange book, but when I really appreciated for its honesty and its hope. It was also helpful for me for understanding the experience of those at the university who are in the sciences, especially females and those without tenure.

I'm not sure what to make of the interspersed chapters on plant biology. They were fascinating, although it felt a bit like it got in the way of the story I wanted to hear more about, even as much as Jahren's telling us of the biology of trees is as much a part of her story as all the (mis)adventures that she had. As she puts it: “People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.” (18)

What this is a story of: “there’s still no journal where I can tell the story of how my science is done with both the heart and the hands.” (20) Where I can tell of all the non-successes that obviously don’t make it into journals. “I have become proficient at producing a rare species of prose capable of distilling ten years of work by five people into six published pages, written in a language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks. This writing relates the details of my work with the precision of a laser scalpel, but its streamlined beauty is a type of artifice, a size-zero mannequin designed to showcase the glory of a dress that would be much less perfect on a real person.” (20)

What does it say about academia (science)?
"Next time you meet a science professor, ask her if she ever worries that her findings might be wrong. If she worries that she chose an impossible problem to study, or that she overlooked some important evidence along the way. If she worries that one of the many roads not taken was perhaps the road to the right answer that she’s still looking for. Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: “Money.” " 124-125

“As hard as I worked, I just couldn’t get ahead. Showers became a biweekly ritual. My breakfast and lunch were reduced to a couple of cans of Ensure from the cases that I kept under my desk. . . I passed the workday biting my nails with ferocity. None of the single guys that I met could understand why I worked all of the time, and nobody wanted to listen to me talk about plants for hours, anyway. Everything about my life looked pretty well messed up compared with how adulthood had always been advertised to me.” (130)

What does it say about being female in academia?She struggled with fitting in as a female, with being accepted and getting enough funding. Despite being someone who won some prominent awards (and was on the tenure track at 26 already!), funding was clearly a problem for at least ten years. She speaks about being taken advantage of by another lab in the building; of being yelled at during a conference presentation, of receiving weird and clearly mean feedback on paper/grant submissions, and being utterly ignored socially at conferences by the senior scientists in her field.

“I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother – or because I felt like nobody’s daughter – or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout. I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known. In the years to come, I would create a new sort of normal for myself within my own laboratory. I would have a brother close than any of my siblings, someone I could call any hour of the day or night. . . I would nurture a new generation of students, / some of whom were just hungry for attention, and a very few who would live up to the potential that I saw in them.” Jahren, Hope. Lab Girl (p. 71-2).

What does it say about mental illness?
"Tiny but determined, I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing that it’s more than people want to see." 16
The honesty is a bit disconcerting, as we hear more than we might want to know. For instance, she describes full-blown mania: “You don’t fear life and you don’t fear death. You don’t fear anything. There is no sadness and there is no grief. You feel your sub-conscious formulating the answers to all the collective miserable searching that man has ever done. You have indisputable proof of God and the creation of the universe. You are the one for whom the world has waited. And you will give it all back; you will pour out all you know and then wallow knee-deep in thick viscous love, love, love.” (145)

What does it say about religion?“My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all the things that I am getting done. . . My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am. . . . My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. . . And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.” (19)

What does it say about friendship?Her relationship with Bill makes me think of Spiritual Friendship (see book by Wesley Hill and website) and the deep goodness of this strange family-like relationship. She describes her friendship in the following way: “He is strong where I am weak, 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. I inwardly vowed to do whatever it took to raise more salary for him and to keep us going. . . Within two separate but adjacent rooms, we tuned two radios to different stations and went back to our work, having once again reassured each other that we are not alone.” (25-26).

After an accident with glass that left splinters of glass all over the lab – and didn’t harm her only because at that moment she’d been fiddling with the radio (as if this isn’t God’s providence!), Hope’s anxiety arises as she sits outside biting her hands. Bill is present, and he notes that he had a dog who used to bite her hands. Hope acknowledges that it’s gross, as she is also flooded with shame. Bill’s response was “no, she was a great dog. When you have a dog that good, you let it do whatever it wants.’

Other quotes that I appreciated: 
“Science didn’t talk about books that had been written to analyze other books that had originally been written as retellings of ancient books; it talked about what was happening now and of a future that might yet be.” (18)

“At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still day. As we dug in our garden, I listened to the lazy buzzing of bees as they staggered drunkenly from flower to flower, the petty, sniping chirps of the cardinals remarking upon our bird feeder, the scraping or our trowels through the dirt, and the authoritative whistle of the factory, blown each day at noon.” (14)

“Time has changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.” (29)

In speaking of her time visiting the psych ward (while she was working for a hospital pharmacy. “The first time that I entered through the double-locked doors of the psych ward I was terrified, believing for no real reason that such places harbored evil souls ready to assault me at any moment. But once inside I found it to be the slowest-moving place on Earth, and I saw that these patients were unique only in that time had stopped inside their wounds, which were seemingly never to heal. The pain was so thick and palpable in the psych ward that a visitor could breathe it like the heavy humidity of summer air, and I soon realized that the challenge would not be to defend myself from patients, but to defend myself against my own increasing indifference toward them.” (49)

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