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The secret life of plants — and ‘Lab Girl’ author Hope Jahren

May 24, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
When geobiologist Hope Jahren sat down to describe the results of her research, she found that she couldn’t relate her findings without discussing the people who made them possible, herself especially. That revelation led to her new book “Lab Girl,” both an investigation into the complex and thrilling lives of plants and a deeply personal memoir. Jahren joins Jeffrey Brown to explain more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the latest addition to our “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

“Lab Girl” by geobiologist Hope Jahren is both an investigation of the thrilling lives of plants and a deeply personal memoir.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hope Jahren, welcome to you.

HOPE JAHREN, Author, “Lab Girl”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, part memoir, part science. What were you after, or are they both the same to you?

HOPE JAHREN: Yes.

Well, I wanted to write a book. And in my field, that’s what you do. You get your degree, and you write a lot of papers, and you get a broad view of the field, and you write a textbook, which changes the way…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, for other scientists.

HOPE JAHREN: Yes, which changes the way it’s taught, and the field goes forward.

When I sat down to do that, I couldn’t keep my own story out of it. When I really tried to explain what we had accomplished, I needed to talk about how we accomplished it. And then I needed to talk about all the late nights and special people and strange experiences that went into that.

I couldn’t keep the two separate. So now you have got a book where it’s all entwined.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it begins for your first discovering or at least seeing science in your father’s lab.

HOPE JAHREN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: He taught science at community college, right?

HOPE JAHREN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see?

HOPE JAHREN: My very earliest memories as a small child were in the laboratory, what it smelled like, what the cement felt like, the hard angles of it, the shiny objects, and the interesting things, and how they could all be used for something. And they were toys, but they weren’t toys. They were serious things.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you even write, “There’s nothing in the world more perfect than a slide rule.”

HOPE JAHREN: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a serious thing. Right?

HOPE JAHREN: Yes, exactly. It’s a beautiful thing that we don’t use anymore, unfortunately.

But we broke things, and then we fixed them. You could have fund breaking them. You could have fun fixing them. There was nowhere better.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the natural world, though, the world of plant life, that ultimately grabbed you.

HOPE JAHREN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why?

HOPE JAHREN: Oh, it’s the biggest question there is. What does it mean to be alive on the planet?

And answering that for you and me is one thing, but answering it for an organism that is so terribly different than we are and so terribly much more successful and long-lived and spectacular, that we can’t even interview, the way you can ask me a question. I have to pull it out of its environment and put it in the lab and try to grow it and control it and get — and work so hard to just get a small, small window into something so different.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I was thinking, because so much of your book is about moving through the world and seeing green, right?

HOPE JAHREN: Yes, yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seeing colors around us. And yet, most of us — maybe I should speak for myself — we don’t see it every day.

HOPE JAHREN: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s right there, but we don’t see it.

HOPE JAHREN: But you used to. You got away from that.

I think one — another thing I say in the book is that everybody has a tree they remember from being a child. It’s very common I meet somebody who remembers looking carefully at a tree, and being near it, and what it meant to them, et cetera.

And I think one of the only interesting things about me is that I never lost that. I never moved away from it.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the interesting things about the way you write the book, going back and forth between yourself and the plant world, is the similarities, but also, as you were saying just before, the great differences between us, right?

HOPE JAHREN: Yes, yes. It’s juxtaposed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

HOPE JAHREN: I talk a little bit about how a plant establishes itself, and the struggles it undergoes.

And I talk a little bit about how I established myself, and the good parts and the bad parts and the tough parts. And then I let the reader say to themselves, did I see any similar threads? Did I see any differences?

And it’s turned out to be a wonderful thing. To see people read it has been wonderful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of the tough parts, personal parts about your struggles with depression, bipolar disorder.

HOPE JAHREN: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had to work hard to keep this under management, right?

HOPE JAHREN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it affected your life tremendously.

HOPE JAHREN: Yes, yes.

I spent 10 years being very sick and hiding it. I spent 10 years doing the very hard work of getting well. And I had not seen that written in a book the way it had been a real thing for me for very important parts of my life.

And so I thought, maybe I can do this. Maybe I can make a book that tackles this in a way it hasn’t been done before, and I did my best.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then, of course, for all the wonder of scientific discovery and research, there’s the nuts and bolts of, you know, actually booing a worker, right?

HOPE JAHREN: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of having to get funding, of having to get positions to teach and do your research.

HOPE JAHREN: Absolutely. It’s work.

I mean, it’s hard work that doesn’t usually pay off. It’s hard, and it might not come to anything, and the only salvation you have is the joy you get from the moment, to the joy that you get from watching the samples accumulate right next to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s called “Lab Girl.”

HOPE JAHREN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are a woman in science. Right? You write about this, all the discussion about why there aren’t more women. Is it sexism at an individual level, at a cultural level? What do you see going on?

HOPE JAHREN: Well, I think being a scientist is a position of respect and power and access, and it’s a privileged position in society. And I think there are fundamental mechanisms that keep men and women from achieving the same level of power and access and privilege in society.

And so I think these things apply to science, in the same way that they apply in who’s in Congress and who is running the world in many other ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: But give me an example. Where does it happen? Because, you know, this discussion is always, what happens to young girls who start out interested and somehow don’t make the same progress, or don’t achieve the same positions?

HOPE JAHREN: One thing that was very important to me was that I felt comfortable in the lab from being very, very small.

I knew that that’s where I belonged, and I could fix things and move things. And no matter how many classrooms I went into where I was the only girl in the physics class or whatever, I never questioned the fact that I didn’t belong there. I knew that as well as I knew my own name, that this was the place I was comfortable, and this is the place where I could do things.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Lab Girl.”

Hope Jahren, thank you so much.

HOPE JAHREN: You’re welcome.

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