The Chronicle Review

‘If America Wants to Kill Science, It’s on Its Way’

A. Hope Jahren on women, research, and life in the lab

Matt Ching

April 08, 2016

Like much of history, scientific memoir is the domain of victors, researchers at their denouement reflecting on their rise to eminence. These are not the voices from the trenches, of scientists working, as so many do daily, to take the next logical step, to make the next discovery. And with few exceptions — Jane Goodall, Rita Levi-Montalcini — these have not been the stories of women.

So what does the real work of science in the academy look like, the 99.9 percent that does not make the history books? You’ll find no truer answer to that question than Lab Girl (Knopf), a new memoir by A. Hope Jahren, a geobiology professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

The book has won early acclaim. The New York Times called it a "thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants," while Elle said it was "both fierce and uplifting." In the weeks before publication, Jahren made a name for herself with a series of op-eds for the Times, the latest of which, last month, described the serial harassment faced by many women in science.

In the book, Jahren emphasizes one paradigm shift that has taken place in plant biology: It was once common to think that plants, largely immobile and static to our mammalian eyes, are sculpted by their environment, but new work shows how plants, too, can shape the world to their liking.

Jahren seems on the verge of doing some world-shaping of her own. We spoke by phone last week. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Let’s start with the public perception of science. In Lab Girl, you describe your frustration with how the messiness of science has to be sanded out of terse scientific papers, rendering experimentation as an inevitable march to triumph. Was getting that true story out part of your need to write the memoir?

Yeah. This is something that science does to protect itself. We have this language that we write in, that we don’t ever speak, that is full of words that are inaccessible to people who aren’t us. We tell ourselves that it’s the only kind of writing that matters. And most of the rewards we give each other are based on our assessment of that activity.

It keeps science in this protected realm. It’s the ultimate demonstration of the fact that science is not something everybody can do. And it’s odd because out of the other side of our mouths, we increasingly say, "Science is something we need to get more people involved in."

“Science is desperate. It needs to believe itself honorable. It's threatened by the fact that it's not safe for so many of us. Period. It's just not safe.”
Scientists, in general, tend not to think of themselves as one of the most esteemed and influential groups in the country, when in fact they are. This fantasy world seems useful in defending that influence.

We’ve all had these experiences where you talk to academics and think, "My God, what would these people do if they had to get a real job?" There are some people who have never asked that question. They’re far gone.

That option was never open to me. I knew very early on that I was never going to be the bearded guy in tweed with the elbow patches smoking a pipe, walking around campus, that everybody knew was the world’s expert in something obscure. I was never going to be recognized like that. I was never going to be treated like that.

I had to think very hard, very early on, about, "Why am I doing this?" I never did chase those kinds of rewards. I had to figure out how to reward myself for this job, and I’m glad I did. Because the people that I know who chase those rewards, it’s never enough. There aren’t enough academies or medals or any of that to make them feel appreciated.

I’m not going to go down without saying the things that I feel such a deep need to say. That doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid. I’m very, very afraid. But I think the cost of keeping that inside was getting to be unbearable. I talk about it like I’m some kind of important social crusader or something. I realize that I’m not. But this is my little life, and so it is important to me.

You mentioned early in the book the importance of curiosity-driven science, as opposed to research driven by its potential application. But now you run a successful lab that also studies how plants will behave under the elevated atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels that we’ll likely see over the next few decades. Did you adapt to the demands of science, or did the world come to you?

That baffles me. I feel like I’m the same scientist I was back when I couldn’t get a grant. Now I’m that same person thinking that same way getting grants. That system of external rewards in science has always mystified me. It’s fickle. And I also don’t think it was constructed with people like me in mind.

No matter how much funding I get, I’m always thinking, "This is temporary. This is fragile. It could all end tomorrow, and how am I going to make today worth it? If this is my last day in the lab, what can I do so that I can walk out of here saying, ‘That was a good day’?" And the only reward for a good day is one more day. I really do look at it like that.

No matter how well or how poorly I’m funded, I’ll never stop going to the Salvation Army. These are people’s tax dollars. These are people who work long hours at jobs they don’t like, and they pay taxes, and those taxes go to me. The only way I could show how grateful I am for that is to stretch each of those nickels into a quarter.

The grant system was not constructed for people like you ­— what do you mean by that?

There are more women in science today than there was when I started out, that’s for sure. I can just see the comment section on this article right now; it will be full of, "No, it’s not like that. You’re wrong, you’re wrong."

But there’s still not very many of us. I’m in a cohort that’s not got a lot of women in it. I’m not asked to join these great, big grants that are group endeavors. And that’s more and more the norm in environmental-science funding. It’s not because people don’t like me. I don’t mean to suggest I’m persecuted. I just don’t work that way.

As an undergrad and a graduate student, you came to science partially because you felt so welcome in it as a woman, like a plant growing toward the light, as you put it in the book. But you also faced everyday problems like a creepy postdoc in an X-ray-diffraction lab, where you needed to manage your exposure to him. It’s a nuanced story.

That’s just the way it was for us. There were creepy people, and it was your responsibility to avoid them or to manage it as best you could. I’m ashamed that I never questioned that reality until very late in life. It was such a given that that was part of the ticket to ride, the creeps and the creepiness, and watching your step every step of the way was part of the ticket to ride. And I never before questioned whether that was a price worth paying, the way I do now.

It’s a heartbreaking thing to give advice about. The one piece of advice you can’t give is, "Go do this and you’ll get justice." And that’s the piece of advice we need to give: "Go, follow these directions and you will see justice."

Because justice is far from guaranteed?

I’m somehow at fault for not being able to give that advice, and that’s crap. We give the best advice we have, which is basically, "I believe you have value, even if nobody else does." And that advice takes many different forms.

I’ve gotten a huge amount of responses that say, "Well, it’s not just science. It happens everywhere." That’s kind of my point.

Number one, this doesn’t make it OK. Number two, on some level, we as scientists need to believe that science is a place where it doesn’t happen. We need to believe that we’re this rational meritocracy. Egalitarian.

Science is desperate. It needs to believe itself honorable. It’s threatened by the fact that it’s not safe for so many of us. Period. It’s just not safe. And I believe that until we can believe it to be safe, we don’t have any business making a hypocritical show of recruiting the very people who are the least safe.

In the book, you mention how you had a difficult pregnancy during your time at Johns Hopkins, and that the university barred you from your lab once your superior saw you in the lab while on medical leave. Were there repercussions for that?

Of all the things that have happened to me — and I’ve had bad things happen in the field —

This was when you were sexually assaulted by a stranger while doing field research in Turkey, in the 1990s, which you described in a Times op-ed?

Yeah. I’ve been through some stuff. And I don’t want that to take away from the joy that I get from being a scientist. But I tell you, of all the things that I’ve been through, getting told I couldn’t come to the lab ­— that was the absolute rock-bottom worst thing. I’ve thought a lot about why that happened and what it meant. There’s a generous interpretation and there’s a not-so-generous interpretation. The not-so-generous interpretation has to do with the fact that this is a woman being extremely womany, right? It’s a pregnant woman. There’s no fitting into the male world when you’re eight months’ pregnant. Male spaces don’t tolerate that.

The generous interpretation is that I had a terribly difficult pregnancy. I was on medical leave. I have a well-known tendency to work very hard, and, if something terrible was going to happen, nobody wanted it to happen in the building for liability reasons. I know that’s true.

What was clear was that the people who told me had no idea what they were taking away from me. I felt like it would kill me, I really did, and that I was losing my purpose in life, and that I was losing my purpose in life part and parcel with this thing that was very, very scary to me. I didn’t know if I could become a good mother.

Much of Lab Girl revolves around your partner in science, Bill Hagopian, a scientist and technician whose meager salary depends on what financing you can win for your lab. Science is full of contingent positions like these, but their stories are rarely told.

A lot of the book is about Bill. I can’t tell the story of how we did the science without talking about him. We really are two parts of the same thing. Yet he doesn’t want to be the professor. He doesn’t want to do the part that I do. It’s not how he’s wired. There are a lot of Bills in science. And to say that they’re not appreciated is an understatement, because they’re one paycheck away from the street. I want the reader to be outraged at the fact that somebody like him, who is so talented and so dedicated and so hardworking, is not secure as a scientist, that our system does not provide for these people. It’s crazy.

“I'm trying to manage my fears with my commitment not to be silent. I'm trying to remember that I am not a tragic figure. ... I've been rewarded adequately by every system I have worked within.”
You’ve moved your lab multiple times, from Georgia to Maryland to Hawaii, to leverage a better deal for Bill. Do you have any ideas on how the positions of the many Bills out there could be improved?

The only thing I’ve ever been able to figure out when the university wants to stop paying him is to threaten to quit. Then it always comes together — he doesn’t get paid very much. It’s getting worse, too. Funding rates are going down. And it’s not just how much money you ask for, it’s what you ask for. Certain things are harder to get money for, and it’s very, very hard to get money for a person like Bill.

The National Science Foundation is under increasing pressure to show that it is having an educational impact. Asking for money for students is very different than asking for money for people in their 40s who are in a steady job. I feel very pessimistic about it.

I don’t really know. If America wants to kill science, it’s on its way.

Your current financing is set to expire this August. Is that still the case?

It all runs out in August. I don’t have anything on the hook right now. I have no idea what we’re going to do. We’re looking at our options. Do you have an idea? I don’t know what to say. I’ve been here before. August has never been further away than three years in my world.

If there’s not a place for Bill in this job, then there’s not a place for me, either.

By the time people are done reading the book, the "lab girl" might not have a lab, and Bill might not have a job. Readers should bear that in mind.

Your most recent op-ed in the Times, last month, described the unwanted advances that many women in science suffer from male superiors and peers — initiated, you write, by "bad apples so rare they have been encountered by every single woman I know." A flood of commiseration echoed your thoughts on social media, and you’ve been harassed and threatened since then. What do you make of that experience?

Two things. I’m drawing more inwards, in that I spend more time quietly in my lab with the people I care about. I don’t go to conferences anymore. I do get hate mail and I get rape threats, and it does affect the way that I live. I try to be philosophical about it. I know people that get it worse than me, and I try to manage it. That’s what women’s lives are. We manage our fears.

Part of the reason I don’t go to conferences is that I’m losing patience with my colleagues. I’m tired of saying things that everybody knows are true. Why does it take somebody like me to start these conversations? I’m not special. I’m not particularly smart or endowed.

I’m trying to manage my fears with my commitment not to be silent. I’m trying to remember that I am not a tragic figure, and I don’t want to be thought of as such. I have richly rewarded myself for everything I’ve ever done, and I’ve been rewarded adequately by every system I have worked within.

Would a male scientist write a book like Lab Girl?

Men and women study things differently, and it’s not because of our chromosomes. It’s a product of our cultural conditioning. But from what I’ve seen, I think men study things in order to conquer them and understand them and kind of put it to rest. Women study things in order to figure out how they’re connected to other things. I don’t know if it’s controversial to say that, but that’s what I’ve seen from doing science for a couple of decades.

Men’s science writing is an extension of that, in that it very often sounds like, "This is what I know, and I’m going to tell it to you, and you’re going to take it the way I tell it because I’m the person who knows how to sell it." I’ve been lectured to by men on science enough for two lifetimes.

I wasn’t going to write that book. I was going to write something different.

Paul Voosen is a senior reporter covering the sciences. Write to him at paul.voosen@chronicle.com; follow him on Twitter @voooos; see past work at voosen.me.