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STEM Celebrity Spotlight: Jane Goodall

By Clare Schinzel


In America, we love to hear a rags-to-riches story. Whether it's a famous actor starting out as a waitress, or an entrepreneur climbing the corporate ladder, nothing satisfies an American more than the meteoric rise of a striking individual. However, a leader doesn’t have to be sitting on a pile of wealth to strike a cord. Jane Goodall is a perfect example of a meteoric rise––not in wealth, but in intelligence and phenomenal expertise. She is not only a role model for women in STEM, but also for humanitarians, conservationists, and researchers alike as she valiantly represents that pursuing your dreams doesn’t always mean taking the conventional path.


Dr. Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall––otherwise known as Jane Goodall––was born in Bournemouth, England, on April 3, 1934. Along with her sister Judy, Goodall was raised in that region throughout her formative years. During this time, Goodall’s interest in animals blossomed. Beyond repetitive readings ranging from thick ecology textbooks to a plethora of sketches of birds and other small animals, Goodall also took care of a dog named Rusty, a tortoise, and even a pony. Her constant contact with wildlife left her longing for more. Wanting more exposure to exotic animals beyond England’s borders, Goodall yearned to explore Africa, where a majority of her later studies would take place.


Not having enough funds to attend college, Goodall chose to do secretarial work until she had enough money saved up for her dream voyage. By the time she was 23, Goodall was on her way to Africa to visit a friend whose family owned a farm in Nairobi, Kenya. While in Kenya, Goodall met Dr. Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, a renowned paleoanthropologist. Sensing Goodall’s passion, he offered her a job at a national history museum before eventually giving her the opportunity she had been waiting for: employment at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania to study wild chimpanzees. Because she had not attended a traditional college, Leaky thought that she could bring a new perspective to the research. The duo briefly returned to England to secure funds and immerse themselves in current chimpanzee research. By 1960, they had been granted funding, acquired the necessary knowledge, and expanded upon their passions enough to return to Africa.


The initial days weren’t easy: trekking through miles of the jungle without laying an eye on any chimpanzees was degrading. Additionally, Goodall was bedridden for a portion of the journey while battling a dangerous case of malaria.


Eventually, Goodall did have a breakthrough. After many weeks of building trust, a high-ranking male chimpanzee called David Greybeard permitted Goodall to observe him, encouraging many other chimpanzees to follow his example. During one of these observation sessions, Goodall noticed David Greybeard utilize tools by using blades of stiff grass to draw out termites from termite holes. This groundbreaking discovery made scientists reevaluate the intelligence of chimpanzees, and apes as a whole. Goodall also noted that chimps were omnivores that could hunt for meat and were capable of both using and making their own tools.


But even beyond these discoveries was Goodall’s positive treatment of both animals and the environment. After attending a primatology conference in 1986 that highlighted deforestation and noticing its effects of it along Lake Tanganyika in the Gombe Stream National Park, Goodall partially shifted her focus to conservation. Doing what she could, Goodall set up refuges for chimps left homeless after research or deforestation. In 1977, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute and established the Roots and Shoots program by 1991 which focused on informing young people about the dangers of deforestation.


Throughout all of this, Goodall continued working in the field while pursuing a doctoral program with Dr. Leakey beginning in 1962––despite not having an undergraduate degree. Citing her own observations, Goodall’s views almost always clashed with head scientists at Cambridge University. They disapproved that she named the chimps rather than using a number system and shunned the idea that chimps could have feelings, emotions, and personalities. As the cherry on top of the conflict, the university world was deeply upset by her first book, My Friends, the Wild Chimpanzees, which focused on outreach to the general public rather than to the scientific community. Despite their grievances, Goodall obtained her Ph.D. on February 9, 1966, proving that the conventional path isn’t a definitive one, and that sometimes all scientists need is a new perspective to break boundaries.


Works Cited

Appleton, Sarah. “Jane Goodall.” National Geographic, 24 Oct. 2022,

education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/jane-goodall/.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Jane Goodall.” Encyclopædia Britannica,

britannica, 21 Sept. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Jane-Goodall.


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