Lab Girl and Eucalyptol

LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

Depression and anxiety are illnesses that haunt me. Sometimes they demand my undivided attention and other times they merely have an underlying presence in my thoughts. They hurt me, but they also help me develop new ideas.

Hope Jahren’s new novel, Lab Girl, chronicles her struggles with mental anguish as well as love of lab, science and hard work. In some ways, we are very much alike. We both:

  • were born in 1969
  • love science and working in a lab
  • are fascinated by nature
  • understand Norwegian culture; having both lived there
  • struggled as females in the science field with few women mentors
  • like to write
  • work too hard
  • have difficulties managing stress and anxiety
  • manage extreme anxiety by chewing hands or nails
  • are married and have children
  • don’t listen (especially if it will increase anxiety or depression)

Hope Jahren has a best friend in the lab, Bill. Her determination and the support of her best friend Bill help her achieve great things in science. Hope is a fully tenured professor, authors publications and wins awards. Her achievements inspire me to work harder.

“Lab Girl” not only provides “connection” and inspiration for women in science, the book also thoughtfully explains the science of  the trees and plants around us. Reading her novel changed how I see the trees at Staircase in Olympia National Park . I look at each tree more thoughtfully and truly admire the nature surrounding me.

The Big Cedar, Staircase (Olympia National Park)

“Big Cedar”, Staircase (Olympia National Park)

Staircase, Olympia National Park

Staircase, Olympia National Park

In her novel, “Lab Girl” there is a chapter describing how it is to walk through a eucalyptus grove. “You are engulfed in a unique smell, acrid and spicy and a little bit soapy too”.  She further explains these sensations as airborne chemicals released by the trees,”volatile organic compounds” or “VOCs”.

She also explains that VOCs are secondary compounds, meaning “they don’t provide any nutrition, and …..are secondary to basic life functions.” Flavors are defined in United States regulations 21 CFR 101.22 (3) as having significant function in food as flavoring rather than nutritional (i.e. secondary to basic life functions).

If VOCs are secondary, why do they exist? are they important? What were mother nature’s plans?

Jahren explains that since VOCs don’t contain oxygen, they are relatively cheap for the plant to produce and expendable. My anxiety peaks and I wonder how other scientists view the study of flavors, is it “expendable”.  Would I listen?

Hope Jahren explains that “VOCs have many uses that we do understand, and probably a host of others that we do not”.

I see that there are more questions and research to be conducted. I comprehend that an understanding of flavor VOCs and the plants they come from is somehow very valuable to other scientists.

Hope explains that the “eucalyptus releases VOCs as part of an antiseptic that will keep its leaves and bark healthy if it is wounded, preventing infection”.

This antiseptic use is most likely the reason flavor chemists use the characterizing component of Eucalyptus, Eucalyptol, in medicinal flavors. Eucalyptol is one of the active four ingredients in Listerine mouthrinse that kills bad germs. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that Eucalyptus is a fungicide or an insecticide, i.e..  kills germs.

The characterizing component of Eucalyptus oil is Eucalyptol, or 1,8, Cineole.  It is an ether.  An ether is a class of organic compounds where an oxygen atom (O) is connected by two alkyl or aryl groups (R), i.e. R-O-R.

1,8 Cineole (Eucalyptol) Sigma Aldrich

1,8 Cineole (Eucalyptol) Sigma Aldrich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eucalyptol, characterizes Eucalyptus oil, but is also found naturally in Rosemary, Laurel, Thyme, Sage Spanish, Spike Lavender, Clary Sage , Peppermint, Spearmint, Ginger and Cornmint. It has been described as medicinal as well as “cooling”.  It finds use in cough drop, mouth rinse and toothpaste flavors.

In “Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin” published in 1961, Steffen Arctander finds that there are at least 700 known Eucalyptus species. Arctander may have visited some of those groves, much like Hope Jahren traveled to visit the nature she studied.

I dream of studying plants in other countries, much like Hope Jahren and Steffen Arctander.

 

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