40 pages 1 hour read

Hope Jahren

Lab Girl

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2016

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Professor Hope Jahren’s 2016 memoir, Lab Girl, chronicles the author’s life and experience as a geobiologist. The memoir contains three parts, each spanning a major period in Jahren’s life. Autobiographical chapters are followed by brief, lyrical chapters examining various plants and their habits. These chapters on plants contain extensive use of personification, relating plant experience to that of humans.

Part 1, “Roots and Leaves,” spans Jahren’s childhood to her first teaching job.The author grows up in a small town in Minnesota ina family of Norwegian ancestry. She spends many evenings in the laboratory of her father, who teaches science at a community college. Jahren receives her bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of Minnesota and her Ph.D. in soil science from U.C. Berkeley. As a teaching assistant at Berkeley, Jahren meets Bill Hagopian, who is studying soil science there as an undergraduate. The two develop a friendship that grows into a lifelong lab and research partnership. Jahren accepts a teaching job at Georgia Tech, where she builds her first laboratory. She offers Bill a job working in her lab, but she can only afford to pay him a low salary.

Jahren intersperses meditations on plant life through these chapters. She focuses on the life cycle of trees, with special attention to seeds, roots, and leaves.

Part 2, “Wood and Knots,” focuses on Jahren’s early teaching career. She struggles to establish her reputation and secure grant funding. Since her research is curiosity-driven, she has more trouble receiving funding. She also faces adversity through misogyny in the scientific community, with many people underestimating her abilities since she is a woman. During these chapters, Jahren also introduces her struggle with manic-depressive disorder. She lets her symptoms go untreated and also taxes her body with lack of sleep and poor diet. Throughout these years, Bill is a constant professional and personal support. Jahren eventually accepts a job at Johns Hopkins and takes Bill along with her.

The plant segments in this part focus on the adversity that plants face. This includes insects, environment, and other encroaching plants.

Part 3, “Flowers and Fruit,” centers on Jahren’s later career and personal life. While at Johns Hopkins, Jahren seeks treatment for her mental health issues, and her overall physical and mental health improve. She also gains more recognition in her field and is able to secure funding for her lab and projects. Jahren meets and marries Clint, and the two have a son together. Jahren undergoes a difficult pregnancy in which she goes off her medication, and her mental health suffers. After she gives birth to a healthy son, she stabilizes. The family and Bill move to Hawaii, which is where Jahren currently teaches and resides.

The plant sections here discuss human interference in the plant world. They also focus on reproduction and growth.