Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Meeting Jane Goodall

Elliot Gaines, Jane Goodall, and Yvonne Vadeboncoeur
The Lake Tanganyika Littoral Ecosystem Project group had dinner and a show with Jane Goodall on July 16, 2011!  There was a party at Jane Goodall Institute in Kigoma, on the banks of Lake Tanganyika celebrating her 50 years as an ethologist (one who studies animal behavior) and environmental activist.  Jane spoke for a while and introduced the new film about her life and then discussed it with us afterward.  The film, Jane's Journey is scheduled for release in the US in September 2011.  Goodall’s life is an amazing and inspiring story!  After the film, we had dinner with Jane and sat and talked until late about her life and work, environmental issues, and about communicating to public audiences.
Ryan Satchell, Wright State undergraduate Biology major, Len Kenyon, and Jane Goodall
          Our research lab is just down the road from the Jane Goodall Institute, and we were lucky to time it right for her visit; she left for South Africa the day after our meeting.  Having been at it for more than 50 years, Jane still travels and constantly speaks (very gently and apolitically) 300 days each year about environmental issues.  Just two days following this great experience, our group visited Gombe Park where her research about chimpanzees took place.  It was a fabulous experience, especially after meeting her personally.
         Jane told the story of her first major lecture.  She was working at Gombe when a letter arrived from the National Geographic Society.  They had decided to fund her research for another year, and to fly her to Washington to speak to an audience of more than 5000 people.  Jane told us she was terrified and wished she would be gored by a wild water buffalo so she wouldn’t have to go.  Needless to say, she was well prepared with interesting material and film from her fieldwork with the chimps, and she made a good impression on the audience.  After all these years she said she still carefully prepares before every speaking engagement.  She is very soft-spoken, but with an air of authority, honesty, humor, and sincerity.  Her message is one of hope for the future.  She said she never wanted to be a scientist, but always loved animals and the outdoors.  Ironically, she was almost kicked out of her doctoral program at Cambridge because her dissertation came out as a book that had popular appeal, suggesting that it was not scientific enough.  Goodall spoke further about the need for scientists to represent the importance of their work to the public in non-political terms in order to communicate the urgency of environmental issues. As the evening wore on, Jane spoke of her work as a “fight” for the environment and the future of life on earth, but stopped to say she should not refer to this important work as a fight.   Perhaps her charm and wit are a gift, but her ability as a speaker comes with a great deal of knowledge, experience, and thoughtful preparation.
Baby chimp at Gombe Park
          My job here is to help the scientists tell their stories.  I am not trained in science and cannot tell the story that needs to be told about the scientific research being conducted at Lake Tanganyika.  Primarily, I am taking photos and videos to document the work, and interviewing the scientists.  These are very smart people doing important work.  But, like all well-educated professionals, field biologists have a culture all their own and tend to communicate with others trained in the language and practices of their discipline.  The National Science Foundation funds scientists with public money, and is asking grant recipients to communicate to public audiences about the impact of their work for the general population.  But even more significantly, with the media and government dominated by corporate money that speaks loud and clear in defense of their own self-interests, can science for the sake of science expect to influence public policy (and continue to receive funding) when research findings challenge the financial interests of the powers that be?  Social debate about climate change, the effects of industry and pollution, and misunderstandings about evolution leave scientists isolated by their lack of speakers who can represent science with the charm and appeal of Jane Goodall.    
Jane Goodall and Renalda Munubi, PhD student in Biology at Wright State University
            No one questions science when it contributes to enhancing the quality of our lives, but the advances we experience in everyday life take a long time to develop from the scientific work that takes place in the field and laboratory.  Scientists need to speak clearly and appeal to public understanding in ways that will proactively affect public policy.  Goodall acknowledged that if scientists don’t speak for themselves, then corporations will.  The world needs more environmental activists and speakers like Jane Goodall. Every scientist can’t be a Jane Goodall, but society needs to understand the importance of current research for the future of the planet.
Elliot Gaines

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