Reflections on Hope Jahren's Lab Girl as a Disabled Woman in STEM

Part 1: An Introduction, And What We Know

After sitting on my to-read list for at least a year, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren can be marked down both as completed and as one of the best books (if not the best book) I have read so far this year.

And it is here important to note that what follows is less a review, and more an assortment of thoughts on how this book connects to my own life as a disabled woman in science.

That being said, I have mentioned in my many recommendations of this book that the prose is frequently lyrical, always accessible, and infinitely highlightable. In fact, I am debating buying a physical edition to copy down my annotations. (I checked out an ebook version from my public library using Libby.)

When I say that the science is written in a way that is easy to understand, I mean it; I only had to pull out the dictionary maybe once while reading, and I consider myself to be more a chemist than a biologist, so I don’t exactly have a background in geobiology. Even if soil patterns and plant structures aren’t your thing, I still recommend giving Lab Girl a shot. Like any plant, there’s more to it than there might first appear.

Lab Girl is equal parts science and memoir, so thoroughly and organically mixed that it would be counterintuitive to try and separate them. After all, the scientist is always a part of an experiment, even if we don’t always acknowledge it.

Specifically, this book covers the author’s journey from small hopeful science child to full fledged academic researcher. Dr. Jahren navigates many ups and downs, (which I shall not spoil) as one might expect, and she does not do so alone, as one might also expect. Classic adventure setup.

While I’ve experienced different twists and turns on my own, slightly different career path, (upon which I am only just embarking) Lab Girl made me have a lot of thoughts about my own experience as a woman in science, specifically, as a wheelchair user.

With that in mind, this post is for the time the one guy assumed I chose my major because I couldn’t “do real science”. For every joke I’ve made at my own expense about doing “supervisory chemistry” to distract from the feeling of being inherently unhelpful at practical lab work. (It is generally considered unsafe to carry containers of potentially hazardous chemicals in one’s lap, the main way I have of carrying things. It is at the very least tempting fate, which is unwise in a laboratory setting.)

If there’s one thing I’m up against that I didn’t expect, it’s the idea that a real scientist works in a lab or in the field, that my career path of communicating science to a wider audience is— by some people— seen as less valuable, or less important, or less science.

I often explain what I want to do in my career using the work of Complexly and the Green brothers. A professor told me once in reference to this that I “want to do Hank things with a John background.” I laughed, because at the time, I was in a lot of communications classes, so it sure looked that way— that I was a writer more than a scientist.

But I was also taking Analytical Chemistry, and doing the required 3-hour labs once a week. But science is half of my degree. It’s in the name. First word.

Is the science half of my degree not registering with people? The fact that I have taken at least one science class every semester of my college career thus far? The fact that I’ve stressed over homework problems and lab papers with the best of them?

Part 2: Questions For Further Study, or: Why don’t people think I’m a real scientist?

I’d wager it’s 1 part unintentional misogyny to at least 1.5 parts unexamined ableism, topped off with the fact that I don’t want to go into lab or field work, the parts of science that people automatically think of. But that’s just a hypothesis based on my own experience and observation of others. And I haven’t thought of a good way to test it.

I really don’t know what to make of this, or how to even approach it, but hey, it’s called “questions for future study” for a reason. I’ll let you know if I figure anything out. I hope that this was useful in some way, whether your situation is in any way similar to mine or not.

If you’re interested in reading this book, I recommend checking your local library’s collection in whatever format you like, or using to support independent bookstores. (This link is only here to make things easier on you; I am not affiliated in any way.) Happy reading!