Dr. Hope Jahren’s grit and determination shine through in her autobiography Lab Girl as she relates her journey from curious child to successful scientist. Born and raised in the oft-frigid hinterlands of Minnesota, Jahren derived her chief pleasure as a child from exploring her father’s chemistry lab. Her love of science, captured eloquently in her writing, led her to a career as a botanist and geobiologist. At face value, Lab Girl is a tale of self-discovery and acceptance of oneself as a female scientist in the face of rampant sexism from male colleagues. However, Jahren’s chief purposes in writing her autobiography are to illustrate the abysmal state of funding for science in the United States and the critical importance of preserving the environment for future generations. Innovative in style and content, Lab Girl is an impeccably written autobiography that merits attention from scientists and the lay public.
Jahren’s autobiography candidly illuminates the plethora of obstacles that may hinder aspiring academics. For Jahren, one recurring obstacle is the challenge of securing adequate funding. The plant biology and geobiology research that Jahren conducts is classified as basic science. Basic scientific research is meant to elucidate overarching principles and detailed pathways; it is primarily pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. While this knowledge may one day prove valuable to some invention that can help humanity, in the short term there may not always be a clear translational application of the research. As a result, the government and general public are generally less eager to fund basic scientific research.
According to Jahren, the main source of funding for basic science is the National Science Foundation (NSF).
In 2013, the NSF’s annual budget of $7.3 billion was 60 times less than the Department of Defense’s annual budget (Jahren 122-123). Jahren astutely recognizes that the ramifications of this amount might still seem abstract to a general reader, so she uses the example of paleobiology funding to clarify. Since only $6 million of the $7.3 billion is devoted to paleobiology, if there are 50 contracts per year that amounts to a mere $120,000 per contract to support a lab and all of the researchers who work there (Jahren 123). While Jahren proceeds to a further analysis of the numbers, her argument is already clear: there simply is not enough funding for basic science in the United States. Failure to include a comparison of funding for basic research to funding for translational research seems like a missed opportunity in the otherwise thorough statistical argument Jahren presents. Nevertheless, Jahren clearly relates the drastic disparity in funding between basic research and other categories of government spending. Furthermore, what funding is available for both basic science and translational research is in danger of being slashed in the 2018 fiscal year. A recent Washington Post article details the current administration’s proposed budget cuts for science, including an 11% cut to the NSF’s budget and a 17% cut to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s budget.
It is evident from Jahren’s writing that scientists are not the sole victims of poor research funding. The environment has suffered from the dual blows of inadequate funding for environmental science and abuse by humanity. She writes that “our world is falling apart quietly” because human exploitation of the environment has “devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not” (Jahren 279). With appropriate attention to environmental science research, Jahren believes that we can mitigate further damage and potentially reverse some of the damage that has already been done. However, Jahren recognizes that conducting environmental science research is only one part of the puzzle. In the epilogue of her autobiography, Jahren includes a final call-to-action asking for citizen conservationists to take small steps to safeguard the environment for future generations such as planting a tree in one’s yard (Jahren 280). With humans contributing significantly to the current dismal state of the planet, Jahren’s message is evident: we humans have a duty to take steps, however small they may be, toward making amends for the damage that we have caused.
Jahren’s Lab Girl is a remarkable autobiography in part because it accomplishes so much more than merely relating the tale of one individual. The central message of the need for conservation and improved funding for science is increasingly exigent, and it is delivered artfully. While portions of the autobiography delve into scientific detail, Jahren’s lifelong interest in the literary arts is evident in her ability to render her writing accessible to scientists and non-scientists alike. Jahren’s frequent yet not exclusively conversational tone makes her writing more engaging without being entirely informal. She manages to imbue the text with her personality so that the prose is not dull or dry; in other words, Lab Girl never reads like a dense textbook. In an innovative format, almost every other chapter is a description of a type of plant or a plant process that serves as an analogy for Jahren’s experiences related in the next chapter. This unique and inspired writing style allows Jahren to emphasize the interconnectedness of humanity and its environment, thereby reinforcing her claim that we must take greater action to preserve the environment.
Perhaps most importantly, Lab Girl showcases Jahren as an example of a creative scientist who is also an adept communicator. As Louis Pasteur once said, “there are science and the applications of science, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it”. For research to bear fruit it must first be funded, and funding requires understanding of value. It is critical to build a dialogue between scientists and the lay public that is bereft of befuddling jargon so as to improve understanding of the importance of research. Here at UC San Diego, where so many students are science majors, it may be beneficial for students to also take courses from the literature department to improve their creativity and writing skills. The next generation of scientists, from UC San Diego as well as from other renowned research institutions, must be as gifted with the pen as they are with the pipette.
In case you are interested in following Jahren’s suggestion of planting a tree in your yard, you can find a link to a list of native California plants here. Happy gardening!
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