Get Lit With Liz

Charles VerheyELA

February 21, 2019
Liz Zupan

There are books that you forget as soon as you finish them. There are some that leave you stunned from the surprise ending that transformed your literary reality. And there are some books whose story lingers with you long after you have turned the last page—popping into your mind and filling the small moments of your day. Lab Girl is the latter.

Lab Girl is Hope Jahren’s memoir of her personal and professional journey to become a scientist. Jahren’s love for science began in her father’s lab at a community college in rural Minnesota. While being in the lab always made her happy, Jahren was not sure that there was a place for a woman in the science world. Because of this, she pursued an English degree during her first few months at college. But she soon realized that science was her home—despite the fact that she was “just a girl,” as she puts it.

Growing up is a long and painful process for everyone, and the only thing I ever knew for certain was that someday I would have my own laboratory because my father has one. In our tiny town, my father wasn’t a scientist, he was the scientist, and being a scientist wasn’t his job, it was his identity. My desire to become a scientist was founded upon a deep instinct and nothing more; I never heard a single story about a living female scientist, never met one or even saw one on television.

Jahren’s passion and drive to become what she believed she was born to be is why Lab Girl belongs on the shelves of your classroom library. No girl should ever feel that they do not belong in the science field (or any career field for that matter).

In addition to be a role-model text for your students, Lab Girl is a beautifully written book. Part educational and part memoir, Jahren weaves her personal journey with the story of plants and creates an extended metaphor for her own life. A far cry from the dry pages of a textbook, the educational chapters of her book are rich with figurative language:

A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet. Any plant that you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert. The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods: nobody living here can afford to move. Too little water, too much light, temperature too high: the desert has all of these inconveniences ratcheted up to their extremes.

Jahren’s own story is just as engaging and vivid. Her journey begins with her school experience and follows her as a grad and doctoral student, from her first lab at the University of Georgia, to Baltimore, Norway, and eventually Hawaii where she currently has her lab with the University of Hawaii. Jahren’s story is also infused with the comic adventures she has had with her life-long lab partner, Bill, who is—to say the least—eccentric. Her telling of their professional partnership and personal friendship is compelling and makes you want to read on to see what other hijinks they get into.

Lab Girl is like no memoir I have read before. A typical memoir will have you only thinking about the author’s journey. Lab Girl isn’t like that. Jahren also leaves you thinking about the world, and seeing the trees in your life differently. And yes, I mean to imply that trees are part of your life and not just fixtures of your surroundings. That is the powerfulness of Lab Girl—Jahren will change how you see plants.

[…] perhaps I was destined to study plants for decades only in order to more fully appreciate that they are beings we can never truly understand. Only when we begin to grasp this deep otherness can we be sure we are no longer projecting ourselves onto plants.

If you aren’t sold on adding it to your classroom library, read it for yourself. Flip through it, and use passages as a model text in your lessons. Give it to the biology teacher down the hall to read and use in their class for content-based literacy instruction. Whatever you do, give Lab Girl a chance to earn a place in the classroom.

There is occasional cursing in Lab Girl. The f-word is used a fair amount—not every chapter but enough that you should be aware before adding it to your shelves.

Reading Conference Questions

While Reading:

  1. According to Jahren, what qualities does a Scandinavian family have?
  2. Why do you think she explains what it is like growing up in a Scandinavian family?
  3. How did Jahren’s experience with the hackberry trees in Colorado shape her as a scientist?
  4. Describe Jahren’s relationship with Bill. What makes it so important to Jahren?
  5. What is something you have learned about plants since you started reading Lab Girl?
  6. How do Jahren and Bill encourage and support each other?
  7. What happened to Jahren during her pregnancy? Why do you think she chose to share that with her readers?

When Finished

  1. Why does Jahren share the story about the tree from her childhood at the beginning? How does her story connect to the one she tells about her son’s favorite tree?
  2. Why do you think Jahren divided the book into three parts? What significance do the names of those parts have on the story?
  3. Jahren frequently talks about being a woman in a field dominated by men; why do you think she mentions this so often?
  4. Why do you think Jahren chose to share her story? What message is she trying to communicate through her writing?
  5. What was the most memorable part of her journey?

Posted by Elizabeth Marshall Zupan | Teacher’s Discovery

I have a BA in secondary English education from Miami University of Ohio and an MA in curriculum and instruction from Eastern Michigan University. Prior to becoming a Product Developer for Teacher’s Discovery, I taught high school English in Detroit. In my last teaching years, I became passionate about student-choice novels and fostering a love for reading in students. Thankfully, I had a supportive administration and ELA department that allowed me to turn my 9th- and 10th-grade classes into reading workshops. I believe that all students are readers—there are just some that have not yet found the right book.