Vassar always seems like a place that brings different fields together or highlights the diversity within a certain field. As a college that began as a women’s college, Vassar always seemed like a place that welcomed intellectual exploration in different fields regardless of what the social norms and expectations are for people. This week I had the privilege of listening to Hope Jahren, a woman who studies plants, while she shared some of how she came to be in her field as well as some of the aspects of her studies that she loves. There were a few themes that I’m sure reflected the dynamic scope of her new book, Lab Girl. As a child, she loved to look at all of the lab equipment in her professor father’s labs, and from that point on she decided that she was going pursue being around these tools that she thought of as toys at the time. It wasn’t until she was older that she looked around and realized that she wasn’t necessarily supposed to be there. She was a woman who decided to pursue what she enjoyed and didn’t think too much about the barriers that she was breaking along the way. Her presentation went beyond the study of plants and into how her research and the plants themselves have been so important for humanity. Those of us who are familiar with some basic biology know that plants are important for creating stable ecosystems, but rarely does one think about the other ways plants are ingrained in humanity.
On a basic level, plants make decisions based on their environments in a similar way to humans, such as moving in ways that aid their survival. Jahren proposes that perhaps plants aren’t so different than us, and maybe just experience time differently. In this way, plants are just as alive as people, despite all of the differences. Plants move, allocate resources, grow and reproduce, even if these things aren’t obvious to us with the naked eye. It’s interesting to think about the different planes of existence between humanity and plants, while sharing fundamental similarities that seem almost spiritual. Jahren pondered whether plants “view” us in a similar way to us viewing particles: moving extremely quickly in what seems like disorder. In a similar vein of thought, Jahren alluded to quotes from different holy books which use different images of plants to help understand the universe. Regardless of how one feels about the merit of each holy book, these pieces of literature seem to suggest that people have felt a connection between themselves and plants similar to the connection between themselves and the universe. These points made me realize that while all things in the universe are physically related to each other to different degrees, people recognized and sensed this connection well before the scientific evidence for it came to support those feelings. As someone who studies biology, I thought Jahren’s presentation was affirming in two main ways. The first being that within the field, more and more people are able to pursue their passion despite the fact that fields such as biology have been dominated by cis white men for centuries. The second may be even more personal, and that is that Jahren affirms that their is still wonder in the universe. Despite the immense fields of scientific study, their is still so much to be learned and that’s what’s most exciting for me as a science major. There is a sense of spirituality and wonder in making discoveries about our existence, leading to a better understanding of who we are and our place in the world.