Connections for the STEM Classroom

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Girl to Geobiologist: Hope Jahren’s Spirited Life in Science Journey

A book review of “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren (2017).

Rachel Ratliff, Katie Knapp, Qianqian Liu and Bopi Biddanda, Annis Water Resources Institute

"My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place.
And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
– The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1862).

The beauty of science is that it is never the same.  Theories are constantly evolving and new questions are always being asked.  Therefore, the science journey is both fascinating and challenging.  A mind in science must be passionate, flexible, creative and strong.  Hope Jahren, a geobiologist with a passion in plants and known for her work using stable isotope analysis to understand fossil forests, shares her life-story as a woman scientist through her memoir, Lab Girl.  The book is a spirited account of her ups and downs in academia (Figure 1).  A three time Fulbright Award recipient, she spends her days enriching young minds at the Oslo University in Norway.  Her journey includes battles against herself, men, and the ever-constant search for funding her science.  She emerges successful, like a defiant young seedling taking root in the forest soil.  All of her accomplishments are underscored by her gender.  Even in this day and age, becoming a proficient female scientist in a male-dominated world is a revolution.  Hope’s book is engaging and serves as an inspiration to aspiring young girls and women everywhere.  On the whole, her life-work experiences provide compelling motivation for young minds seeking fulfilling life-science careers.


Figure 1.  Cover of the book “Lab Girl” (Knopf Publishing, 2017.  290 p, ~$9)


Author Hope Jahren

It is not a secret that women are underrepresented in science.  Why is that? It certainly isn’t because women and girls are not interested. In pre-kindergarten programs girls are shown to have an equal interest in science and math as boys do, and 15-year old girls outperform boys around the world except in US, Britain, and Canada (Cervoni and Gabrielle, 2011; Guardian, 2013).  Further, 20% of engineering graduates are female, but women only make up 11% of employed engineers (Science Daily, 2008).  Where do we lose them?  And how can we get them back?  Lab Girl is not an instruction manual for women navigating the male-dominated world of science.  It is, however, a delicious account of one woman who made it in the world of science.

Jahren’s studies began underneath the lab benches in her father’s laboratory.  At an early age she is granted access to a myriad of tools that are all useful for something, she just has to figure out what.  Hope’s father is a college professor and rather than enlisting a student intern to check the week’s classroom experiment, he entrusts Hope with the task, creates space for her to explore and gives her freedom to try as he believes that “there is no shame in breaking something, only in not being able to fix it”.   “As my father prepared for class the next day, I would work backward through each canned experiment and demonstration making sure the college boys would have the easy success toward which they were predisposed.” These formative years are imperative for children’s growth in science, especially young women.  Hope was lucky enough to be on the forefront experiencing this daily, whereas most young girls only have classroom time and the occasional field experience to see what science in action really is.  Recent research has shown that a young girl’s self confidence in quantitative realms is much more important than initial interest in quantitative subjects (Science Daily, 2008).  If young girls feel secure in their ability to tackle scientific problems, their interest will follow.

The celebrity Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) professionals of 2017 are mostly male – Steven Hawking, Elon Musk, Craig Venter, Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  From a young age we are taught to see science as a masculine profession and even the most accomplished females are rarely featured in American textbooks.  This stigma can have enormous effects on how young girls view themselves and their place in academia.  For example in clothing stores shirts that say “NASA” are often in the boy’s section and shirts that say “cutie” are in the girls section.  Hope alludes to this dichotomy in early chapters when reminiscing about her years in her father’s lab.  She mentions that her father, a slim guy who favors khakis, looks “just like a scientist was supposed to.”  At the young age of five, “I also decided that the real me looked exactly like that, even though on the outside I was disguised as a girl.”  Jahren goes on to explain that on the playground she “pretends” to be a girl by jumping rope and gossiping with her friends.  At night she “transforms” into a scientist, as if the two are mutually exclusive.  We need to get girls comfortable with their own potential.  Introducing them to successful female STEM professionals is a simple way to combat this stigma, and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a good place to start. The earlier girls interact with examples of women in science, the greater chance of them pursuing education and careers in sciences (see “Great Reads for Girls K-12” below).  

In an interesting passage, Hope recalls her first research result.  After weeks of struggling to unlock the secrets of the elusive Hackleberry pit, her instrument gives a clear reading – an opal core.  Jahren is drunk with discovery and it is contagious.  “I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal.”  Jahren anticipates her male colleagues downplaying her revelation, but it matters little.  She is officially a researcher, and cannot see herself doing anything else more satisfying.  In this moment she also takes time to reflect on other women in her life.  “On some deep level, 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.”  It is when she truly accepts the mantle of “woman scientist,” and forever changes the field’s landscape.

Strong female role models are essential for closing the gender gap in STEM.  Cherney and Campbell (2011) explained a phenomenon called stereotype threat.  People in marginalized groups can become anxious about fulfilling a stereotype in a given profession.  Although it may seem men face this same struggle – women face it more intensely due to the underrepresentation and different expectations that are made of women.  This anxiety leads to lower performance.  For example, a woman taking a calculus test may perform more poorly due to her anxiety about the stereotype that women are bad at math.  This threat is compounded if they are emotionally invested in the subject and have a great desire to succeed.  So, young women who are invested in STEM careers are most vulnerable to stereotype threats.  Only recently did the girl scouts add badges for science, technology, engineering, and math (Yurieff, 2017).  Today you see more emphasis on encouraging girls to go into STEM.  One solution is to introduce a mathematically competent female into the mix.  In the presence of a woman who is demonstrably proficient in a quantitative subject (e.g., calculus), the stereotype threat is essentially eliminated (Marx and Roman, 2002).  It’s important for girls to have women in their sphere they can look up to as role models.  According to Jahren’s memoir, she grew up with few female role models in quantitative fields.  Today she is working as a professor in Norway and serving as role model for the next generation of scientists.  Her book is the next best thing to having her in your science classroom - her confidence in the face of male-doubt is refreshing.

According to Hope, “In the lab I transformed from a girl into a scientist, just like Peter Parker becoming spider-Man”, and “Becoming a tree is a long journey” (Figure 2).  Like all successful scientists, Hope knows how to struggle with failure as a sapling’s struggle for light and nutrients while in the shade of an adult tree.  Sometimes “the adult tree” is a great anxiety, sometime it is insufficient funding, other times it’s a dataset that doesn’t support your hypothesis.  Challenges make a strong soul more successful, because “People are like plants: they grow toward the light” when under shadow.  As Jahren grows she learns to meet these challenges with patience rather than panic “She emerges successful, like a defiant young seedling taking root in the forest soil”.  

Women are often deterred from careers in research because they are expected to settle down and start a family.  Hope Jahren is proof that women can have a thriving career and a healthy family life.  In Lab Girl, she shares her life-work stories from her curious childhood to professor of botany illustrating a real-life scientists’ career pathway with all its problems and triumphs.  Women scientists today should not only continue striving to surpass any challenges, but also pay back to the community by inspiring younger generations to go into STEM.  Young girls are impressionable and with the right inspiration, they will choose a career in science just as well as in the humanities. As Jahren said “A seed knows how to wait.  Each beginning is the end of a waiting.  Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”  Without being given the right and supportive conditions, however, young girls may not make it to the “tree” stage.


Figure 2. Diagram illustrates the seed to mature plant growth and development analogy that Jahren describes in her book. Jahren uses a seed to roots, stem, branches, and leaves to indicate steps a student would take to transition into a working scientist from start to finish.  While we all start as an acorn, not everyone is given the right conditions or inspiration to grow.  Many may begin to grow only to be stunted. The women who make it to a career scientist-educator stage, are represented by the largest tree.  At each age level, critical support is required to close the gender gap in science.  At the pre-k level a young girl may experience the excitement of dissecting a flower or catching frogs and fish with family and friends.  At the grade school level a teacher may inspire them to be a scientist through watching Bill Nye the Science Guy.  During high school a girl may take advanced math classes, physics, and biology; she could grow to love or hate these topics depending on the teacher’s enthusiasm and attitude toward young women pursing science.  Finally, at all college level, many aspiring scientists are likely lost trying to find what they want to do for the rest of their life.  Career scientists and educators should inspire young girls of all ages to pursue STEM careers. With the right support system having equal opportunities and encouragement/inspiration, any girl can make it from acorn to a fully-grown oak tree. 

The world around us is changing rapidly – faster than ever before.  Scientific research and technological advances are evolving daily to meet the growing challenges.  We need a diverse and enlightened scientific workforce to ensure our theories are well reasoned and grounded so they can advance the frontiers of knowledge and address the many emerging common problems that face humanity and the planet as a whole.  Jahren’s voice cuts through the scientific jargon and speaks directly to minds engaged in science.  In “Lab Girl”, the depths of Jahren’s trials are mirrored by the height of her current success.  Jahren masterfully crafts a narrative that is both compelling and insanely clever.  While some of the mature and real-world content of the book may be not quite suitable for young children, we highly recommend this book to high school and college students, and scientists and educators of all ages. 

“All my life through, the new sights of Nature made me rejoice like a child.” – Marie Curie, Winner of 2 Nobel Prizes (Physics, 1903; Chemistry, 1911).

Literature Cited:

  1. Lewis Carroll (1862).  Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.  Reprinted, 1960:  The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, illustrated by J. Tenniel, with an Introduction and Notes by M. Gardner. The New American Library, New York, 345 pp.
  2. Cervoni C., Gabrielle I. 2011. Girls in primary school science classrooms: theorizing beyond dominant discourses of gender.  Gender and Education 23:461-475.
  3. Guardian 2013. Girls and Science: Why the gender gap exists and what we can do about it.
  4. Science Daily- 2008: Tracking the Reasons that Many Girls Avoid Science and Math.
  5. Cherney I.D., Campbell K.L. 2011. A league of their own: do single-sex schools increase girls’ participation in the physical sciences?  Springer Science and Business 65:712-724
  6. Yurieff, Kaya. Girl Scouts Add new Badges for Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math. CNN Money, Cable News Network, 25 July 2017. Web. 27 July 2017.
  7. Marx D.M., Roman J.S. 2002. Female role models: protecting women’s math test performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28: 1183-1193.
  8. Marie Curie, 1923.  In Pierre Curie by Marie Curie, p. 162.

Girl Reads

Each book features relatable women role models for young girls to connect with, wherein inspiring stories encourage scientific confidence in young women.

Page last modified September 6, 2017