Menlo News March 27, 2024

Inspired by an Icon

Legendary chimpanzee ethologist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall shares her 90 years worth of wisdom with the Menlo community.

Menlo was honored and inspired to host legendary chimpanzee ethologist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall as our special guest at an all-school assembly on March 26. As she entered the Athletic Center, the 90-year-old icon was greeted with a standing ovation by a crowd of awestruck students, faculty, and staff. To which she responded, “I think a wonderful welcome deserves a wonderful response. And so I greet you in this way: ‘Hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo!’” The audience watched with wonder as she translated: “In chimpanzee, ‘Me, Jane.’”

It’s been over six decades since a 26-year-old Jane fearlessly embarked on assignment to Africa from England to study wild chimpanzees. At the time, it was unheard of for a woman—let alone a woman in her twenties with no degree or training—to be a field researcher studying animal behavior. But it was precisely her lack of preconceived notions and unbiased observations that led renowned paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey to select Jane for this mission. While trained researchers may have assigned the chimpanzees numbers and tracked them from afar, Jane named them and gradually earned their trust enough to immerse herself in their world. She got to know their personalities and studied their family and social dynamics. Her discovery that chimpanzees use tools, build nests, experience emotions, and engage in warfare changed our perceptions of the animal kingdom and human evolution while opening doors for women in science.

What began as a six-month expedition continues today, and is the longest continuous study of any animal in their natural habitat in history. But she credits a 1986 conference held at the culmination of her 25 years of chimpanzee research with launching her second career: the protection and preservation of the natural world. “I entered the conference a scientist, I left an activist,” she shared. In 1991, she founded the Roots & Shoots Initiative to empower young people with the hope and agency to make a positive impact on their communities, which has now spread to 70 countries around the world.

Her message to Menlo students was clear: “You are my hope for the future. All of you, every one of you young people in this school…It’s really true that what you do in a day, you may feel is not making a difference. And if it was just you picking up litter, if it was just you planting a tree, and if it was just you doing this, that, and the other, it wouldn’t make a difference. But it’s not just you, because all around the world there are people like you doing the same thing. And this is very inspiring because it means that cumulatively, we can change the world and make a huge, huge difference through our individual actions.”

Dr. Goodall regaled the audience with stories of her journey from a little girl with big dreams to world-famous researcher and advocate. “I was born loving animals,” she announced, before depicting some of the earliest signs of her fascination with living things and the unconditional support of her mother. “She came up into my room one day. And I was one-and-a-half. I don’t remember this, but she found I’d taken a whole handful or two handfuls of wriggling earthworms into my bed. Later, she said, ‘Jane, you were looking at them as if you were wondering, how do they walk without legs?’”

She shared some of her childhood inspirations. “I was ten years old when I discovered a very small book…and it was called Tarzan of the Apes…and of course, being a very romantic little ten-year-old girl, I felt passionately in love with this glorious Lord of the Jungle. And what did Tarzan do? He married the wrong Jane.” She laughed. “But that became my dream. I will grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals, and write books about them.”

Her plans never involved being a scientist, however. “The science of animal observation and animal research hadn’t even been thought of,” she explained. “And anyway, girls didn’t become scientists back then, so everybody laughed at me. ‘Jane, follow your dream,’ they said. ‘But dream about something you can achieve.’”

After her talk, Kate W. ’24 sat down with Dr. Goodall to ask her a handful of questions previously submitted by fellow students. “If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring scientists who are passionate about making a difference,” Kate asked, “what would it be?”

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Goodall replied, “It’s following your dream. Choose an aspect of science that really, really appeals to you and give it all you’ve got.”

When asked if there was anything she missed about being in nature, Dr. Goodall simply responded, “Everything.”

The trailblazer’s very special visit came to a close with a serenade. In anticipation of her 90th birthday on April 3, the Menlo community had the honor of singing “Happy Birthday” to a woman who is an idol to many and an inspiration to all.

Dr. Goodall’s impact on the next generation of changemakers is as powerful as ever and students were visibly moved by this once-in-a-lifetime experience. As Menlo alum Anjali Ranadive ’10 shared in her opening remarks, “I was sitting where you guys are sitting now. And I just remember being so young, so hopeful, you know, wanting to make a difference. And Menlo kind of always made us feel like we could do anything, right? We could change the world.”

Now the Founder and President of Jaws & Paws, a wolf and wolf-dog sanctuary outside of Sacramento, Ms. Ranadive added, “What I’ve learned from Dr. Goodall is that the only way to incite change is to have hope and be the change.”