What Would Jane Goodall Do?
Written by Bridget Chalifour
Two years ago, one of my greatest role models and personal heroes, Dr. Jane Goodall, came to speak at my university, discussing her life of work and accomplishments studying apes and promoting conservation work. Goodall, if you have never heard her lecture, is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, with a subtle, dry humor. She’s also one of the most captivating speakers I’ve ever heard. The poignancy and simple language she uses to communicate her studies and her advocacy for conservation programs is what has helped make her one of, if not the, most influential and renowned primatologists and environmentalists today.
The people who made me want to pursue a life in science were also, by absolutely no coincidence, incredibly prolific communicators. Most recognize Rachel Carson for her groundbreaking work, Silent Spring. All the formulas and organic chemistry included were essential in explaining to fellow scientists what was happening when the chemical compound DDT was released and how it impacted the environment. However, it also captured the public’s attention enough to spur an entire environmental movement. In her other written works, Carson shows incredible aptitude for poetically describing some of the least appealing ecosystems, like salt flats and tidal marshes.
It may sound silly, but many students in my generation were also influenced by television personalities who made science entertaining and brought faraway places to the smallest viewers. My dream growing up was to become Jeff Corwin, the more mellow counterpart to Steve Irwin’s Crocodile Hunter. While Corwin was fun to watch, he also embraced his role as a conservationist, and most of his work focused on drawing attention to endangered species and why, through human activity, they were becoming endangered. How many STEM majors chose their path due to watching Bill Nye the Science Guy in elementary school, a personality who made science exciting in his own goofy way? How many aspiring astronomers watched Neil DeGrasse Tyson bring the universe to us in the reboot of Cosmos?
The ability to get the common person to understand and care about science isn’t limited to modern researchers and TV stars. Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle chronicles his journey to South America and is filled with the kind of amazement and whimsy any of us would have had discovering species for the first time. Famed naturalist John Muir’s words on the United States wilderness, especially in the Sierra Nevada, inspired the creation of National Parks, including our first entry, Yosemite, and an entire movement focusing on preservationist principles rather than simply conservation.
It’s essential for any great and influential modern scientist to also be a great communicator. The medium can be anything, from TV, to YouTube, to published papers. The power to convey the sheer magnitude of research and its greater importance is what makes people listen, from the general public, to scientific colleagues, to corporations, to policymakers. Often, scientists don’t know how to tell the average person what impact their work has; they will gloss over the details, which understandably can lead to confusion. It’s not terribly surprising that there’s an ample amount of distrust in this country with regard to scientists; there’s a feeling that information isn’t being shared, and there’s a misunderstanding of how the scientific method works (just ask someone to define a theory in the scientific sense). Being able to break down scientific jargon for anyone to understand will bridge the gap between researchers and everyday people.
A large problem scientists face when communicating is that they are often met with denial. This isn’t an issue exclusively found in the scientific community; any working woman will face denial in her field. Whether in the shape of doubts from our bosses, teachers, coworkers, or even that one guy in your class who feels he has to mansplain all the material (yes, I’ve been there), denial is prevalent for women in the workplace. How do we carry on in the face of disbelief? How do we become the Jane Goodalls of the world? We stick up for what we know is true and we raise a powerful voice in letting others know it, too. Beliefs are instrumental to persevering through the backlash of any deniers.
Specifically as an environmental scientist, there seems to be constant naysaying, whether stemming from climate-change deniers or those who personify the field as a group of overly emotional, tree-hugging radicals. The strongest belief that scientists can have is optimism. Optimism can overcome the perpetual criticism, as well as dismal projections of global warming, expected extinctions, and ineffective political measures. Scientists still wake up every day believing, I can fix this. They still believe, maybe naïvely, that they can bring about discovery and positive change in the world. The inextinguishable belief in one’s purpose is equally as powerful a factor in bringing about change—either socially or scientifically—as denial is in preventing it.
I can vividly remember tearing up listening to Dr. Goodall speak that night two years ago. Maybe it was the sheer thrill of seeing one of my all-time heroes only 50 feet away from me, but I think it was really the message she shared. Goodall entered a male-dominated field and not only made incredible discoveries and contributed enormously to primatology, but she also made so many people care about what she cared about. That’s the ultimate goal for any of us, scientists or not. Fervency, relentlessness and clear, effective communication can help any of us share what we are truly passionate about. All we can hope is that people will hear us.
Bridget graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Environmental Science, and an unofficial degree in knitting and watching Netflix simultaneously. She begins studying for her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder in August. In the meantime, she's keeping busy hiking, reading Darwin, and petting strangers dogs.