Book Review: Unrooted, by Erin Zimmerman

(Note: Erin is a friend so my review may not be entirely unbiased)

Erin Zimmerman completed a PhD at the Université de Montréal in evolutionary biology. She followed this up with a postdoctoral position at the university’s biodiversity institute. She is now a science writer, and has been published in Narratively, Undark, the LA Review of Books, The Cut, and other outlets. Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood, and the Fight to Save an Old Science is her first book, and is a science memoir about her time as a PhD student and postdoc, working in a field that was closing down around her, and in a system that punished people for prioritizing family over work.

Zimmerman’s book is a masterful blend of memoir, interviews with prominent women botanists, and history of science—particularly the role of women over time. She moves from her work in herbaria finding type species of her study group of species, the Dialiinae, to a field trip to Guyana to hopefully see the plants alive in the wild. Along the way we stop at Kew Gardens to study developing flower buds using a scanning electron microscope, and work with her as she tries to extract DNA from various specimens of Dialiinae. She goes through a stack of herbarium specimens that contain her study species, describing the morphology of each in minute detail, from the number of leaves to the curves of their veins.

Throughout the book, Zimmerman bemoans the loss of natural history—botany being one major part of that—in modern science. She describes her time as an undergraduate in the botany lab at the University of Guelph, working with botanists on morphology and taxonomy, and how the botany department was shut down in her time there.

One of the dangers of the loss of botany research is that students are no longer learning the fundamentals of natural history research. New faculty coming into the academic system say that they don’t have the background or knowledge to teach these courses. Like some of the plants preserved in herbaria worldwide, botany and its associated fields—taxonomy, morphology, and ontogeny—are going extinct. But why? Because it’s not ‘sexy.’ It’s ‘descriptive,’ when laboratory approaches are considered more rigorous. As Zimmerman writes, natural history has an image problem: it’s seen as an old science, back when well-funded country women and gentlemen flitted about in fields with nets and collecting cases. These days, ‘hard’ science is the holy grail.

Zimmerman notes, however, that botany at Guelph was recently revived under the banner of ‘biodiversity,’ that researchers needed to know about plants if they wanted to understand biodiversity of various ecosystems and how they’d changed over time. She also writes that present day researchers manage to undertake research like morphology under the umbrella of other research that’s more ‘hard’ science, tying their botany research to more ‘fashionable’ research projects.

As the title of the books implies, it’s not all about botany. Motherhood is a significant throughline in the book, starting with Zimmerman growing up motherless, as her mother died of cancer when Zimmerman was very young. An only child, it was just her and her dad on the farm where she grew up, and a favourite male cousin from down the road whom she played with. She describes her childhood in the corn country of southern Ontario, detasselling corn plants as a tween to make money to buy her first laptop. She never wants to have kids, and when one of her lab-mates with whom she was in friendly competition has a child and no longer seems interested in lab work, she thinks smugly that that will never happen to her. But her partner, Eric, is keen on having kids, and says she’ll change her mind. Which only strengthens her position on not having them.

Zimmerman finishes her PhD with flying colours, and looks for a postdoctoral fellowship to take on afterwards. But given that botany is a dying science, she can’t find a supervisor who would be able to pay for a postdoc doing pure botany. The grant funding just isn’t there for basic morphology, ontogeny, and taxonomy. She and her partner get married, move to the Ontario countryside, and she decides she wants children after all. It’s only a few months after their wedding when she gets pregnant—something she thought would take longer to happen! At the last minute, Zimmerman gets an offer for a postdoc, and attends the interview in somewhat baggy clothes to hide any sign of her pregnancy. This is a sad comment on the state of affairs for women in academia—you can’t even show a hint of being pregnant because you might not be hired; you’ll be seen as a ‘waste’ because you have to take maternity leave.

She works at the lab for six months, taunted by the lab techs about her missteps in learning where everything is in a new lab. She struggles to work under a sterile air hood because the hard edge of the counter can’t accommodate her growing belly. When her daughter, Clementine, is finally born, Zimmerman has only 4 months of maternity leave before she has to put Clementine in daycare and go back to work. She still remembers that day, how anxious she was and how Clementine cried. It sounds like it was the worst day of her life.

Zimmerman has to pump milk for Clementine and asks the research institute for a clean, private space in which to do so. She ends up in a mouldy shower stall adjacent to a bank of toilets, with women whipping back the shower curtain to see what’s making the noise in the bathroom. Eventually, struggling to do her work while also being present as a mother at home was too much, and Zimmerman had had enough. When she tells her supervisor she’s quitting, he implies he’d hesitate to hire a woman again. But he also tells her she was doing such a great job—something he’d never said in all the time she’d been working there.

Newly unemployed Zimmerman soaks up the time with Clementine, despite her misgivings about having given up an academic career. Eric, meanwhile, has set up an optometrist practice in a nearby city. They move back to the country and have a second child. On a family trip to Kew Gardens in London, Zimmerman remembers her time there fondly and has an epiphany about what she can do instead of science. She sees people buying books in the gift shop about science, and realizes that she can share her science with the public, and decides to become a science writer.

All of which led to the creation of this book.

Zimmerman has a knack for inserting bits of humour into a book that can get heavy at times. For example, “Floral development research is a great way to develop the skilled hands of a surgeon without having to be burdened by all that extra income.” She is also a botanical illustrator, and created all of the drawings in the book. In a strange twist of fate, she not only had to deal with being a scientist and a mother, but she had twins while writing her book, which required some creative ways of writing while breastfeeding or playing at the park. Although the twins did eventually go to daycare like Clementine did, the experience was much less stressful as they were older and had each other for company.

Unrooted makes the point that botany is a dying science, that academic science is not a welcoming place for women, especially during their childbearing years when they’re expected to move to different postdoctoral fellowships, and that popular science writing is a way to share with the public the neat things scientists do. Zimmerman ends the book on a citizen science note, outlining how ordinary people can get involved in science through public projects like deciphering old handwriting on herbarium specimens or tagging species they find in the woods for online apps like iNaturalist. She wants to show that, though science might seem to be an inaccessible and closed world, the public are the future of science because they are the ones who can help by getting involved in citizen science.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book—the mix of interviews, memoir, science, and historical facts worked well to push the story forward. Zimmerman doesn’t hold back on some of her personal failings, but doesn’t dwell on them, either. She skillfully tells the story of making her way in the world, first through science, and then through science writing. She gracefully brings the story arc back to her childhood, except this time she’s living in rural Ontario with her own family, raising them in the cornfields of home.

Erin’s book will be released on April 16th, 2024. You can pre-order a copy here. If you’re in Chatham or Sarnia, Ontario, Erin will have two events in April (see here). There’s also an event in Montreal, but I don’t have the information for that one.

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