The important lessons all scientists could learn from ‘Lab Girl’

By David Spellmeyer, Ph.D.

There comes a time when all graduate students and post-docs in the life sciences face a daunting decision that will shape their career path. They can continue down the academic route or they can seek a job in industry.

I remember how challenging it was to explore that choice. It is not surprising that the academic path feels the most familiar. After all, we have willingly immersed ourselves in academic settings for 10 or 12 years post-high school. During those years laboring toward our degrees, we spend most of our time completing the work needed to graduate while pushing off career exploration.

But what is a career as an academic scientist really like? One recent book sheds light on the surprising realities of working in a university lab, as well as providing many other important insights into the ups and downs of academic life.

Lab Girl” is both a memoir and a scientific exploration written in the first person by Dr. Hope Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist who is currently Wilson Professor at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics. A friend recommended the book when it was published (and became a national bestseller) in 2016. When it made it to the top of my reading list, I discovered a richly crafted treasure trove of information that I believe is a must-read for all scientists.

I say this for many reasons: 1) Dr. Jahren recounts the horrible and ongoing biases against women in science; 2) she describes the challenges of finding an academic position, establishing her lab, dealing with funding (and a lack thereof), and the impact on those closest to her; 3) her handling of her bipolar disorder and the impact on those around her highlights the complexities of mental illness in a matter-of-fact-way and without shame; 4) her handling of her pregnancy and how it affected her career; 5) she makes complex science easy to understand with elegant and engaging descriptions, setting an excellent example for all of us.

Dr. Jahren describes being drawn to a life of science as a shared experience with her father, a science teacher. She confronts the biases that face women who engage in technical or scientific pursuits. Those biases intensify as she advances down the path to her Ph.D., and again as she secures an academic position. The challenge continues as she works to establish her niche in the greater scientific community where “publish or perish” rules. Disappointingly, such biases are still present to this day.

There are other biases, of course. Dr. Jahren also describes the challenges that all academics face as they work to establish themselves. For example, we are all pushed to investigate novel science — just not so new as to upset the established dogma. After all, those who control decision making are the ones who established that dogma. That decreases the chances of publication, decreases the probability of funding, and increases the stress and strain on tight budgets. Jahren provides memorable stories of the struggles with money, finding and repairing antiquated equipment just long enough to produce important data, dealing with unexpected results, and providing support to key lab staff.

In the process of establishing herself, Dr. Jahren experiences the worst aspects of her bipolar disorder. At a time when talking about mental illness remains taboo, we owe Dr. Jahren a great deal for her matter-of-fact manner “owning” of her disease, the impact on those around her, and how to seek treatment. She does this without shame (for more on this, check out works by social worker and researcher Brené Brown.)

Her language describing her own scientific pursuit and discovery is beautiful and deeply engaging. Her description of x-ray diffraction is particularly outstanding. Most scientists struggle to explain complex topics in such easily understood language. We can all learn from Dr. Jahren’s approach.

In the end, Dr. Jahren’s deep passion for science and her determination override all of her challenges. This is the lesson for all of us, whether we continue in academia or enter industry. Once we discover our true passion, all the rest can be viewed as a surmountable goal.

A couple words of caution are needed, though. First, we can often fool ourselves as to what that passion truly is, particularly when we are immersed in an environment in which we have made commitments to ourselves and to others. Second, “surmountable” does not imply easy, painless, or inexpensive. We might give up our mental and physical health, family, financial security, and even our homes.

In the end, a life filled with meaning involves sacrifices and decisions with significant long-term consequences. “Lab Girl” provides insights that I found very helpful and I hope you will, too.

David Spellmeyer, Ph.D., is a biotechnology executive with 25 years of broad experience in the life sciences industry. He is an executive-in-residence at ShangPharma Innovation. Read full bio