Geobiologist and bestselling author Anne Hope Jahren has no doubts. Her “best lab ever” is the one she recently started at the University of Oslo.
The first thing to catch one’s eye when walking into the brand new Jahren Laboratory on the fifth floor of Kristine Bonnevie’s House at the University of Oslo, are some ultra thin tree cores laid out on a foil mat. They are samples of spruce from Tryvann in Oslo.
“Our lab is in Norway, we are in Norway, and we wanted to investigate things that are important for Norway”, says Anne Hope Jahren.
And what could possibly be more Norwegian than spruce?
Unveiling the trees’ secrets
We can get a glimpse of the climate during a tree’s life span by studying the thickness of the annual growth rings in its trunk.
But Jahren’s team will dig deeper. They are subsampling the annual growth rings into slices as thin as 50 micrometers, which will then be analyzed for their carbon stable isotope composition using a mass spectrometer within their laboratory.
“Right now we are exploring the year 1949”, says PhD student Josh Bostic while bending over the spruce samples with a magnifying glass.
Anne Hope Jahren
Born: 1969 in Minnesota, ancestors from Hurum in Norway.
Disciplines: Geochemistry, geobiology, especially fossilized plants.
Position: Researcher and Wilson-professor at the Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the Department of Geosciences at UiO.
Education and former work: University of California Berkeley, Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, University of Hawaii.
She has received a lot of scientific medals and marks of honour. Named as one of the world’s most influential people by Time Magazine in 2016. Author of the bestselling book Lab Girl.
Bostic, Jahren and Bill Hagopian are the key persons at the new lab.
The samples were collected from trees adjacent to a weather station where data has been collected continuously for more than 90 years.
Can predict the spruce’s future
This way they can develop models by combining analyses on modern tree samples with climate data, showing exactly how spruce responds to different types of climate.
This knowledge will enable them to predict how spruce may develop in the coming years using climate models to generate future projections.
“By learning more about what happened in the past, we can predict more about the future for plants and animals. This information will be important, for instance, in farming and forestry.”
Jahren finds it exciting to be working in Norway as she says it is “at the edge of the cultivable land”, where the growing season is short – maybe 60 good days – and where bad years can be disastrous.
Research on fossilized trees from the Viking Age is another of her prioritized projects. During this time the dead were buried in wooden coffins or wooden boats. These fossilized wood remnants are ideal for stable isotope analyses and contain important climate information.
In the Jahren Laboratory there are high tech instruments that can analyze stable isotopes of carbon, that is, carbon atoms with varying numbers of neutrons in the nucleus.
The partitioning of stable isotopes of carbon in the environment can be helpful in understanding biological and chemical processes.
“We are now looking into changes in carbon isotopes from fossilized wood samples derived from a burial mound at Raknehaugen in Ullensaker”, says Bill Hagopian, who is in charge of keeping the lab up and running.
“These are wood parts that are around 1500 years old. We are gaining new knowledge when we combine our results with what we already know about climate and big geological occurrences”, he says – citing a volcanic eruption around the year 530 which led to ten freezing years.
Hoping for ERC grants and a resource centre
The Jahren team has big plans for the lab. They have applied for funding from the EU, the prestigious ERC grants. Their project deals with fundamental research on plants and greenhouse gases.
“The application has passed the first evaluation phase. So now we are hoping for the best”, says Jahren. She is also hoping that the Jahren Laboratory can become a resource centre for other scientists, especially in biology and geology.
“We can run analyses for them. We are planning to collaborate with geology researchers here at the UiO working with rocks. We are collaborating with archaeologists who work on Viking burial sites. Interdisciplinary work brings us a lot further”, says Jahren, who has also built three labs in the US.
“So this is your fourth lab. Which one is the best?”
Definitely this one. Not only because we have more modern technology, but we have better infrastructure support. The room temperature is very stable, when things break, they are always repaired quickly. A lot of people are here to support the lab and lay the groundwork for good research and innovation, Jahren says.
On renowned Times list
Jahren finds it just as important to pass on her knowledge as to create it. Her effort to convey her research is formidable.
Her book Lab Girl (2016) brought her fame throughout the world. The reviews were great and the book soon became a bestseller. That year Time Magazine also named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The book was translated to Norwegian last year.
She writes about her passion for research and plants, especially trees. At the same time it’s a personal story. She writes about all the hours she spent in her father’s lab, hardship and mistakes and how hard it is to be respected as a woman in science.
She also tells about her family – her parents, her son and her husband Clint Conrad, also a researcher at the University of Oslo. Her friend and research partner Bill Hagopian plays a crucial part in the book. He first started working with Jahren in 1994 and has continued working with her ever since. When asked about his opinion on the book, he says he hasn’t read it – and smiles.
The book has been translated to 22 languages and is popular everywhere.
Wants to stay in Norway
Jahren chose Norway when her contract at the University of Hawaii came to an end in 2016. This was no coincidence. Her great grandfather emigrated from Hurum in south east Norway. She has visited Norway several times throughout the years and is excited about her ancestors’ country.
“I hope to stay in Norway forever. Unfortunately our research doesn’t gain a lot of interest in the US. In Norway and here at UiO there is interest, the will to go all in and the interdisciplinary possibilities that we need to assert ourselves internationally, even in climate research. There are also a lot of smart people here. Everything is possible.
Skiing in her spare time
The trio at the Jahren laboratory has enjoyed a snowy winter and worked hard to master the art of skiing. Bostic prefers the snowboard, while Jahren and Hagopian are trying their fortune at cross country skiing.
“It’s not easy picking it up for the first time when you’re a grown-up. But my son loves it,” says Jahren.
Hagopian was injured after he took a fall in the ski track.
“But I’ll try again”, he laughs.