Anecdotal evidence suggests that every biologist who pursues a doctoral degree spends the first thirty minutes of each family event trying to answer some form of the question, “Why are you still in school?” Hope Jahren's delightful book answers the question nicely: Because scientific research is complicated, and studying living things takes time and patience.
Jahren's book is laid out in alternating chapters of memoir and ecology trivia. Even though the topic is definitely scientific, the prose is that of a fiction novel, so the reader is easily drawn in to the story. The book follows Jahren's educational and career journey through an entertaining personal narrative. Much of the book describes the evolution of her close friendship with her lab partner and provides a sort of love note to their friendship.
The first chapter of the book describes her emotionally isolated upbringing dominated by frigid Midwestern winters. Jahren describes spending time in her science professor father's community college teaching lab as the fondest memories of her childhood, and the indelible impression it made on her. She attributes the time she spent at the black lab benches, tinkering around on her own while her father did his work, as stirring a “deep instinct” to unleash her own inner scientist. Jahren spends a fair amount of time in the first chapter reminding us all why we love science and how each of us has created our own special home-away-from-home within our labs and classrooms.
Jahren writes beautifully, yet frankly, about her experience as a researcher. Maybe her writing resonates with me because I can relate so well to her experience as a woman in science. Jahren is able to write so descriptively about her experiences in the field and in the lab, and the challenges that she faces in a male-dominated field that some passages in the book elicited an emotional response from me. In Part Three, Jahren offers an honest reflection on her struggle to be respected and accepted by male scientists in her field. She writes, “In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can't possibly be what you are.”
Jahren is also open about how her choice to pursue her career challenged her own notions of womanhood. After a long night in the lab that led to her first independent discovery, she finds herself waiting for the sun to come up so that she can share the news with someone. The fact that she did not have a partner to share the news with made it a very lonely wait. She writes, “The realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.” I think that scientists of both genders can relate to the personal sacrifices made in pursuit of discovery.
The middle chapters of the book discuss how difficult it is to fund scientific research and the struggle of securing grants. Jahren explains how hard it is to recruit and keep graduate students and lab staff in such an uncertain environment. In one passage, Jahren mentions that non-defense-related scientific funding has been declining steadily for the past 30 years. She counters the oft-repeated idea that the United States doesn't create enough scientists with the notion that there simply isn't enough funding to support the work of the scientists that U.S. colleges and universities are producing.
This book is entertaining and educational. Admittedly, I eventually began to rush through the chapters espousing the virtues of seed growth and the wonders of the relationship between root and soil to get to the memoir chapters. Perhaps someone with an ecology background would appreciate them more than I. Yet, I think this book would be a great addition to a college-level seminar, or even a common read.
AMANDA L. GLAZE is an Assistant Professor of Middle Grades & Secondary Science Education at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. In addition to science teacher education, she has taught courses in biological sciences for grades 7-12 and undergraduate students over the last ten years. Her interests include evolutionary biology, science and religion, and the intersections of science and society—specifically where scientific understandings are deemed controversial by the public. Glaze holds degrees in science education from The University of Alabama and Jacksonville State University. Her address is Department of Teaching & Learning, Georgia Southern University, PO BOX 8134, Statesboro, GA 30458; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.