'Lab Girl': An Homage To The Wonders Of All Things Green Renee Montagne talks with geobiologist Hope Jahren about her book Lab Girl. Jahren studies plants, seeds and soil. Her passion for science started as a little girl spending hours in her father's lab.

'Lab Girl': An Homage To The Wonders Of All Things Green

'Lab Girl': An Homage To The Wonders Of All Things Green

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Renee Montagne talks with geobiologist Hope Jahren about her book Lab Girl. Jahren studies plants, seeds and soil. Her passion for science started as a little girl spending hours in her father's lab.


On the opening page of her new book, scientist Hope Jahren urges the reader to look - really look - outside.

HOPE JAHREN: I think we get used to not seeing the green things around us. I think they become the backdrop of our lives. And I think you actively have to ask somebody to request that they put that in the foreground.

MONTAGNE: As a geobiologist, Jan spends her days with dirt on her hands, leaves in her hair and plants on her mind. She's a research scientist with her own lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her work helped uncover the fact that swathes of the Arctic were once home to deciduous conifers - trees, lots of them - 45 million years ago. Her book - part memoir, part meditation on the lives of plants - is fittingly called "Lab Girl." Hope Jahren's earliest, happiest memories were of a laboratory - an escape from the silent stoicism of her Norwegian-American family. Here in this reading, she writes as if she was back in the lab as a child next to her scientist father.

JAHREN: (Reading) In the cupboard by the door, there was pH testing tape, which was like a magic trick, only better, because instead of just showing a mystery, it also solved one. You could see the difference in color, and thus pH, between a drop of spit and water and root beer and urine in the bathroom - but not blood because you can't see through it, so don't try. These were not kids' toys. They were serious things for grown-ups. But you were a special kid because your dad had that huge ring of keys. So you could play with the equipment anytime you went there with him because he never, ever said no when you asked him to take it all out.

MONTAGNE: How did it happen that you found yourself with your father so much?

JAHREN: I grew up in a time when there were very few women in the physical sciences. And people started to ask me, how did you decide to become a scientist? And I couldn't really answer. I always knew I'd grow up to have a lab because my dad had one. And he was a community college instructor. He taught for 42 consecutive years in rural Minnesota. And he had work to do in the evenings. And so I tagged along, as it was the funnest thing I could think of. I couldn't imagine life without a lab that I could go to every night. It was just what you did.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, one of the wonderful things about your book is the poetic portraits that you draw of various plants. And there's a line where you say, a leaf is a platter of pigments strung with vascular lace. And, I mean, it just stopped me. And I read it several times because I wanted to just really get the picture really in my mind

JAHREN: So a couple of things on that. A leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace - part of what you liked about that sentence is the juxtaposition of scientific images with feminine images. So a platter, of course, is a dish, and lace, of course, is cloth. And those were the most precious things that were handed down in my family from my grandmothers to my mother, etc. Those were the nice things that they had, you know? And to juxtapose that against the scientific work that I did - it's very natural to me, but it's arresting to the reader. And I love to see that that seems to have worked.

MONTAGNE: I know there are many ideas in the book, but you do tell us that plants are capable of sweating...


MONTAGNE: ...A tree's wood is its memoir...


MONTAGNE: ...And that deciduous trees throw away their possessions once a year. This is all you.


MONTAGNE: I know you don't mean to turn them into humans, but there is a parallel universe there.

JAHREN: Yeah, you know, there's a radical quality to the way that I choose to describe these things. So there are scientific terms for all of those things. I could say that the leaves evapotranspirate. I could say that the leaves scinasse (ph) during the autumn. But those words are part of a language that takes years to learn and that scientists speak amongst themselves. So by describing these things in terms that you use every day, I've made the choice to come to you using your words in order that you understand me. And that's breaking a rule. That's when people start to perk up their ears and say, well, she's anthropomorphizing, and she's making these things too human. But what I'm really doing is offering them to somebody who's not part of the club.

MONTAGNE: One of the all-too-human issues Hope Jahren writes about is her struggle with bipolar disorder. She describes the onset of mania before she got treatment as a, quote, "new world about to bloom" within her. She also writes of the challenge of being a woman in science. It's a cause that she has written about in newspaper op-eds, as well as in her memoir.

JAHREN: I mean, it's hard. And it's hard for all the very same reasons that it's hard to walk around the world wearing a woman's body. I mean, science isn't safe. I've come forward and said that a number of times. We're not safe from harassment. You don't realize how strong the fantasy is that science is a place that's free of these sorts of power imbalances. I'm ashamed to say that when I was younger, I thought that was the price of the ticket. I wanted to be a scientist so badly, and I wanted to have one more day in the lab, that I just thought being constantly sort of tolerated as this non-belonger was just part of a price I needed to pay to get to play with the boys. It took, you know, years and years and the demographics changing a lot for me to realize that that's not right. You know, maybe that's a price I had to pay, but I don't want my students to pay that price. Don't I owe it to them to - even if I can't change it, can I at least say it out loud for what it is?

MONTAGNE: Hope Jahren ends her book much like she began it - with a request to readers to plant a tree. Choose wisely, she writes, you are marrying this tree. Choose a partner, not an ornament. For Jahren, the wisdom behind planting a tree runs much deeper than trying to counter the loss of trees worldwide.

JAHREN: I'm not saying we need to save the trees. I'm saying that we need to not overlook their capacity to save us. Put it in your yard and watch it for a while. And pick carefully because it's hard to get a tree going. You know, if every seed turned into a plant, we'd be living in a very different world. So choose well and open your eyes and give it everything.

MONTAGNE: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JAHREN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Hope Jahren's memoir is called "Lab Girl."


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