Lab Girl

by Eva Amsen

Lab GirlIf you’re subscribed to the monthly newsletter, you’ve already seen my short review of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl:

“Although interspersed with short chapters about the science of trees, Lab Girl is mainly a memoir about Hope Jahren’s journey to becoming a scientist. From madcap adventures with her friend Bill to her struggles with mental health and being a woman in academia, this book has it all.”

I wanted to say a bit more about the book. Specifically, how it made me understand something about myself, and why I was never a great scientist.

Hope’s descriptions of how she felt while running experiments and working in the lab were so different from the way I felt in labs. I never liked hands-on experiments. I just wanted the end result. I liked summarizing the work I did in presentations and papers and in my thesis, but I didn’t like doing the experiments.

I always assumed that nobody really enjoyed lab work, or if they did, that they just liked the meditative mindlessness of repetitive tasks. Like how some people don’t really mind doing the dishes (but don’t love it either), I thought other scientists just didn’t mind the tedious experimental work on the way to the real pay-off of thinking and writing about what it all meant.

But reading Lab Girl, I realised that Hope truly enjoys the entire process of designing, setting up, running and even troubleshooting experiments. She loves science in a different way than I do, as this passage so clearly illustrates:

“We took off our graduation robes, wadded them up, and threw them in a corner. Once we got our lab coats on, everything felt more normal. The night was still young: it was barely nine o’clock and prime working hours hadn’t even started yet.”

Compare this with something I wrote long ago, when I was finally done with lab work, and you’ll see the difference.

Whenever someone would tell me they liked lab work, I didn’t really understand what they meant. This finally explained it. I suppose many successful scientists are like Hope, in that they genuinely love doing the physical aspects of the experimental work, but nobody ever described to me how they felt about doing experiments. They only ever talked about the facts, not the feelings. Lab Girl covers both aspects: what we learn from experimental work, and what it feels like to really love doing science.


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Cecilia Fenech August 16, 2017 - 8:59 AM

This book has been sitting on my bedside table for a couple of months – maybe I should get to it. I totally resonate with what you are saying about not loving the lab work. I like the planning and I like the end result – but not the actual doing of the work. Probably why I no longer am a ‘lab scientist’ and moved away from all that. I work with academics everyday, and I see their passion and their love of lab work. It’s just not me.

Christine September 4, 2017 - 7:55 AM

hmm this is eye-opening to me as well. I now want to read the book 🙂 I am not sure really how I feel, I think there were aspects of the physical work I really did enjoy, but like you I mostly loved summarizing results, and presenting them. I also loved designing experiments. So if science were a hamburger, I liked the bun, not the meat. 🙂 Makes me a science vegetarian? Ok that goes too far… but still. I get it a bit better now as well.

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