Lab Girl: Bringing Humanity into Science

Hana Shinzawa ‘24, Staff Writer

When I think of science, I picture a sparkling white lab full of brand new, high-tech equipment. I see a team of scientists working to perfectly organize their discoveries. However, after I read Lab Girl, a memoir by Hope Jahren, my perspective shifted. I learned that science is not all organization and perfection. Instead, it is an ongoing, messy process; there is no one way to be a scientist. The route to scientific discovery is unpredictable and full of surprises. Lab Girl revealed to me the humanity of science.

Hope Jahren details her journey starting as a young girl playing in her father’s lab to a geobiologist with a lab of her own. Her story is far from linear, which is what makes this memoir such a captivating read. Even as a child, Jahren knows that she belongs in the lab; she views it as a sanctuary. Her greatest dream is to have a lab of her own. 

However, financial worries threaten her dream. Even once she obtains her own lab, she cannot relax. Jahren explains how little scientists in her field are paid as she describes how she and her platonic soulmate, Bill, struggle to keep their lab afloat. When money is tight, they resort to collecting ancient equipment from a friend and even steal supplies from a nearby, better-funded lab. At one point, Bill lives in his van when Jahren lacks money to pay him. 

Jahren’s financial stress exacerbates her bipolar disorder. She describes episodes in which she is standing in one place, mystified as to how she arrived there. In one scene, Bill points out how she chews her hands in times of stress; her hands are ragged from constant worry. After her symptoms crescendo, she visits a doctor, who diagnoses her and gives her medication, which helps her manage her mental illness. 

 Jahren, through her masterful storytelling, reveals that although she ends up a successful scientist with a beautiful lab and steady income, she often struggled along the way. After reading Lab Girl, I realized that my mental image of science needed some revisions. The lab in my mind is a little less perfect, but somehow it is more personal; the equipment is not brand new, but it holds the stories of the scientists that came before. The scientists are not perfectly organized; they struggle with their mental health, finances, and interpersonal relationships. They are no longer robots, churning out discovery after discovery; they are people, with many dimensions. I have added more laughter to the lab in my mind, and I have added pure curiosity. 

Lab Girl brought the idea of science to life in my mind; it has also portrayed science as attainable for an imperfect person. So often, scientists are depicted as flawless and untouchable; Jahren’s memoir displays how human, and therefore imperfect and accessible, scientists truly are. 

Hana Shinzawa ‘24, Staff Writer