Jahren discusses interdisciplinary ‘Lab Girl,’ plant science

Dr. Hope Jahren, a geobotanist and author, discussed her book “Lab Girl” and her research on plants at her March 30 lecture, “Roots, Leaves and Everything In Between.” / Laurel Hennen Vigil

On the evening of Thursday, March 30, the Taylor Hall auditorium was packed with students and professors eager to hear scientist and author Dr. Hope Jahren discuss her acclaimed book, “Lab Girl.”

Jahren is a geobotanist at the University of Oslo in Norway. Her first book, “Lab Girl”—part memoir, part science tome—is a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir/Autobiography and a finalist for the 2017 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. It was also the Spring 2017 pick for Vassar’s Center for Collaborative Approaches to Science’s (CCAS) Engaging Science Book Club.

After being introduced by Vassar Professor of Biology Mark Schlessman, Jahren delivered a lecture titled, “The Magic of Roots, Leaves and Everything In-Between,” during which she both spoke about her research and experience as a scientist and read excerpts from her book.

Jahren began by reminiscing about where her passion for science was sparked: in the laboratory of her father, who taught various science courses at a community college in rural Minnesota for 42 years. She used to help him set up experiments for the next day’s classes. She said, “From a very young age, I thought, when I grow up, I’m going to have my own lab. I just chased that my whole life. I didn’t realize that made me unusual. The book is about that story: what we learned along the way, how we did it, who were the people that were important, the glorious successes that we had and then the heartbreaking defeats that we had, all jumbled together into a book that’s not really about any one thing.”

Jahren then showed pictures of her old lab at the University of Hawaii, where she taught before moving to Norway in September. It was filled with Plexiglas boxes with plants growing inside. “What those are, are actually time machines,” she said, explaining how she can control the environmental conditions inside the boxes to replicate different time periods. “If I want to set those boxes to the time of the dinosaurs, and grow a bunch of plants and see how they grow, I can do that. I can set it to the Ice Age. I can set it to what we’re doing now, the worse case scenario 200 years from now.”

She played several time-lapse videos of her lab plants arching toward the sunlight or unfurling from a tiny seed. These videos are a tool Jahren uses to help students understand that plants are not inanimate objects. “They’re not less alive than we are,” she said. “They’re alive in a different way, but they’re just as fully alive.”

While the videos played, Jahren read passages from “Lab Girl.” “When you go into a forest, you probably look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where underneath a single footprint are hundreds of seeds, each one of them alive and waiting,” she read. “When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.”

Jahren mentioned the criticism she’s received for writing and speaking about plants in a more colloquial way, such as saying that plants “choose” to move or to grow, which alarms some other scientists who feel that this anthropomorphizes plants, thus breaking the “rules” of science writing. Jahren, however, isn’t concerned, because her mere presence in the lab already defies traditional conventions. “I’m a girl, I wasn’t supposed to be here anyway,” she said. “So why don’t I just break all these rules?”

Jahren has written extensively about the challenges of being a woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and about the sexual harassment many women in these fields face. Several audience members, many of whom were young women interested in a career in STEM, said they were profoundly inspired by this.

Piper Yang ’19 commented, “I’m a computer science major and I’m going to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in the Fall. As a preface for that, I wanted to learn a little more about the opportunities for women in STEM and hear about how one woman has overcome the difficulties of being a woman in such a male-dominated field.”

Annika Rowland ’20, who read “Lab Girl” over winter break, added, “The way [the book] was written really changed my perspective on how biology research is managed in the United States and how difficult it can be to pursue that career path, but also how rewarding it is in the end. It definitely cemented my love for biology and learning about the natural world.”

Interspersed with her discussion of her previous research, Jahren also talked about a new project she’s working on: finding and analyzing references to plants in great literature in order to promote interdisciplinary learning, so that knowledge of science can enrich understanding of the arts and humanities, and vice versa. She started this project by examining the holy books of prominent religions and shared passages about plants from the King James Bible, the Talmud and the Qur’an. She invited the audience to share with her any similar passages they can find in works of literature.

Jahren can be reached at a.h.jahren[at]geo.uio.no.

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