On “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren

I got the book “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren as a gift about a year ago. That was right after I finished up my internship at LBL, and was still immersed in academia and haven’t fully embraced the idea of gap year yet. Since it is not a technical book, I did not have the urge to read it right away. Coming home from Europe, I did not have much to attend to, so I had the time to do some leisure reading, and I did not regret any second I spent reading Lab Girl.

The book is essentially a memoir of Professor Hope Jahren, who is right now at University of Oslo in Norway, she also taught at GaTech, Johns Hopkins and University of Hawaii before that. There were a few places in the book that made me stop and think.

Although she successfully secured a tenure track position at GaTech even when she was just in her 3rd year of grad school, her first job was extremely hard for both her and her loyal friend and lab manager, Bill. As a new professor, getting funding was an extraordinary effort. For a long time both her and Bill lived in rundown places such as trailers, trucks and basements, and Bill even lived in a abandoned lab space on campus for a while. I was particularly moved by how hard they worked, and how horrid their living condition was as scientists. Although I have always heard that securing funding is a challenge for almost everyone in academia, I was not aware of how bad it could be until this book. The author had to be on antidepressants to continue working through her hardest times, and although on many instances she felt like she could give up, she did not. And that made her story very motivational for me.

Another instance when I was deeply moved by her story was when she and her team drove from GaTech to SF for a geology conference. During their 3 day driving journey, they experienced a traffic wreck and they could have died. But even with such horrible accident took place, they still managed to attend the conference on time and share their idea and results. I believe this determination is what got her through the dark days and made me realize that brilliant and established scientists got there only because of their hard work and determination, and that I need to be the same on my scientific journey ahead.

The third story I want to comment on is when she became pregnant. As women scientists, becoming pregnant is almost inevitable as we want to have a complete family in addition to our scientific careers. When Hope got pregnant, although she was in a fragile state, she still tried to go to lab whenever she could. However, the department head at Johns Hopkins saw her in such bad health conditions, he banned her from coming to her lab. In the book, she was furious about being banned from her own lab. She had an emotional connection with her lab, that was the only place where she felt safe and could be freely herself. But the department full of male faculties saw her enlarged belly and was disgusted by the image and ordered her to stay away. This was very cruel, and made me worry about the phenomenon. Even for women professors, they are firstly a women, and then a professor. They should have the rights to perform fundamental duties of women such as child birth. It was really heartbroken when she talked about the treatment she got for being pregnant from the school, and maybe that was why she left Johns Hopkins shortly after.

Lab Girl was a very pleasant read. As someone who is about to start her graduate studies, reading about how a fellow female scientist became successful is immensely inspiring and valuable. I learned that it is very important to stick to what you believe in, and work as hard as you can to achieve it. Because nothing in academia, in fact, nothing in life will be easy tasks even for the brightest.

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