Winter 2020

The science life

Keith Negley

Hope Jahren made a big literary splash in 2016 with her memoir Lab Girl. The story of how a small-town Minnesota girl grew into a renowned geobiologist, the book—written partly in the University of Minnesota’s Walter Library—received glowing reviews and won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Jahren, now at the University of Oslo, got her scientific start playing in her father’s community college lab in Austin, Minnesota, before earning a bachelor’s degree in geology from the U of M and a Ph.D. in soil science from the University of California, Berkeley. 

How did the U of M influence you?

When I saw the U’s course catalog, I was excited because it was thicker than my hometown phone book. There was a class on anything and everything, so I knew over four years I’d find something great. Also, I loved being a geology major because there were just 20 of us per class, so we were close-knit and the professors were very invested in us learning. 

How does research support make a difference?

Receiving grants from private foundations has kept us in business. Their funds have tided us over in moments when it all could have fallen apart. They aren’t as structured as government grants and acknowledge our humanity in a way that federal grants do not. Just as importantly, those private grants were a sign that somebody out there believed in us—and that is a wonderful thing.

What inspired your new book, The Story of More?

After Lab Girl came out, Time magazine named me one of 2016’s most influential people. And I thought, “What will I do with this influence? What’s the most important thing I have to say?” And the answer was global change, which is what this book is about. It talks about patterns of how the world has changed in the last 50 years. Yes, it has to do with forests, oceans, and atmosphere, but I hope it will reach people in a way that the more polarized climate change stuff does not.