I enjoy spending time in the lofty realm of scientific concepts, but it’s important to remember that science is also a very concrete, human activity that occurs in specific contexts. The particulars of those contexts can strongly shape the practices and outcomes, no matter how we might wish that science is a purely democratic, egalitarian pursuit of truth (or Truth). This interview of A. Hope Jahren, author of Lab Girl, was a striking reminder of those human elements. As the piece notes, Jahren is not typical of scientists who get book deals, but her experience is probably more typical of what a scientific career will look like than those of Nobel laureates. As such, the interview is a worthwhile read for anyone considering a science career (and the book probably is as well; I’ll have to circle back on that one).
Partly because of my chosen fields of study (biology & public health), I’ve had the privilege of being taught by and working with many scientists who were women — including my first PI during a pre-college summer job, the dean of my undergrad college, the chair of my grad department, and a number of memorable classroom instructors. So many of them were highly respected as scientists that it never occurred to me at the time to think about whether they had faced discrimination or harassment in the way that Jahren describes. Unfortunately, I’ve since read enough stories like Jahren’s to appreciate just how common such treatment is.
The other striking part of the interview is the story of Bill Hagopian, Jahren’s long-time collaborator and technician. Stories about how science gets done rarely mention folks like Bill. The standard narrative includes the faculty who get all the credit, the grad students who do all the work, and sometimes the post-docs who really do all the work and fix everything that the others mess up. Rarely do you hear about folks like Bill, career scientists with decades of experience who are just as intelligent and capable as anyone else in their field but perhaps less interested in lecturing (they likely do plenty of informal teaching in their labs) or politics. When I was a grad student, our lab had Tim Shields, an expert on geographic data. Given the opportunity to tell her own story as an underrepresented voice in popular science discussions, it’s humbling to see Jahren also make an effort to lift up other underrepresented voices.