Books

Book Review – Unrooted by Erin Zimmerman

Unrooted by Erin Zimmerman

Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood, and the Fight to Save an Old Science is a memoir about plants and a love letter to the beauty and mystery of botany, a fascinating and little-understood branch of hard science. By Erin Zimmerman. Published April 2024 by Melville House.


Review of Unrooted by Erin Zimmerman

Botanist, science writer, and illustrator, Erin Zimmerman, skillfully weaves a number of pertinent themes through this beautifully constructed and illustrated memoir. Unrooted provides a tangible human insight into the world of a research scientist that is largely kept behind closed doors, creating a book that is informative, engaging and relatable.

Erin describes her childhood, growing up in rural Ontario and the transition into botanical academia, and by doing so, sounds the alarm for an area of science that is silently slipping away due to an absence of funding and a broader absence of urgency and recognition as to the profound importance of botany as a science – difficult to ignore the alarming synergy with the Earth’s ongoing species and biodiversity losses – all of which Erin describes with candid openness.

In addition to raising the profile of academic research and botanical science, Erin also turns a spotlight on the conflicts that are brought into play when motherhood enters the picture and collides with archaic, institutional attitudes and management methods. Erin finds herself in an impossible situation of having to fight for, and inevitably choose between her hard won and much loved career, and the overwhelming pressures that result from a workplace fundamentally designed to ensure that the journey through pregnancy and motherhood is largely incompatible. You can feel Erin’s pain and frustration rising up through the pages as she recalls the depressing stats of how the world of scientific academia continues to lose highly experienced and proficient women due to the seeming absence of any meaningful support and accommodation of women when starting a family. When Erin is forced to turn away from research and reinvent another career path for herself, she finds herself back on the outside, with the door to the insular and exclusive world of the laboratory, firmly closed.

Fortunately for us and for the subject she is so passionate about, Erin found a new vocation in science writing and journalism, resulting in the fruition of this insightful debut memoir.

Review by Kate Priestman


About Unrooted by Erin Zimmerman

An exploration of science, motherhood, and academia, and a stirring account of a woman at a personal and professional crossroads.

Growing up in rural Ontario, Erin Zimmerman became fascinated with plants—an obsession that led to a life in academia as a professional botanist. But as her career choices narrowed in the face of failing institutions and subtle, but ubiquitous, sexism, Zimmerman began to doubt herself.

Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood, and the Fight to Save an Old Science is a scientist’s memoir, a glimpse into the ordinary life of someone in a fascinating field. This is a memoir about plants, about looking at the world with wonder, and about what it means to be a woman in academia—an environment that pushes out mothers and those with any outside responsibilities. Zimmerman delves into her experiences as a new mom, her decision to leave her position in post-graduate research, and how she found a new way to stay in the field she loves.

She also explores botany as a “dying science” worth fighting for. While still an undergrad, Zimmerman’s university started the process of closing the Botany Department, a sign of waning funding for her beloved science. Still, she argues for its continuation, not only because we have at least 100,000 plant species yet to be discovered, but because an understanding of botany is crucial in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Zimmerman is also a botanical illustrator and will provide 12 original illustrations for the book.

Contributors

Erin Zimmerman is an evolutionary biologist turned science writer and essayist. She has a bachelor’s degree in plant biology and physics from the University of Guelph and postgraduate studies in fungal genetics and molecular systematics from the Université de Montréal’s biodiversity institute. For her doctoral research, she traveled to South America to collect plant specimens, and worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Zimmerman has published 9 academic papers, as well as numerous essays that have appeared in publications like Smithsonian Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, Undark, and Narratively.