Jane Goodall speaking at Sierra Nevada College.
The famed researcher and environmental advocate presented to a packed house of students, faculty, and staff.

Dr. Jane Goodall at SNC

On the evening of March 29, the crowded room in SNC’s Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences building was buzzing with anticipation. A petite 85-year-old wearing a simple black turtleneck with a butterfly print shawl wrapped around her shoulders slipped in the door. The room fell silent as Dr. Jane Goodall took her spot behind the podium. Earlier in the day she had talked to high school students at Incline High. The following day she would do the same with elementary students at the Lake Tahoe School.

She began her lecture talking about her childhood fascination with animals. As a toddler, she brought a colony of earthworms into her bedroom. A few years later, she spent an afternoon hidden in a chicken coop waiting for a hen to come lay while her mother searched frantically for her missing daughter. Jane was curious because she couldn’t see a hole on a hen big enough for an egg to come out. Goodall credits much of her success to her supportive mother, who always encouraged her to explore despite her unorthodox activities. At 10 she found a copy of Tarzan of the Apes in a secondhand bookshop, and Africa became her goal.

As a young woman Goodall couldn’t afford university, so she took a secretarial course. When a school friend invited her to come to Africa, she saved for months for the trip. People told her she couldn’t just up and go to Africa – “Girls didn’t do that sort of adventurous thing,” she remembered. She went anyway.

One of the films from Jane Goodall speaking at Sierra Nevada College.In Africa, Goodall had her first disheartening experiences with overt race segregation, in Cape Town South Africa. In Kenya, Goodall was introduced to famed paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who was amazed by Goodall’s persistence – and in need of a secretary. In 1960 he was able to arrange for her to go study the chimpanzees, humans’ closest living cousins, at Gombe Stream National Park in what is now Tanzania.

In Gombe, Goodall immersed herself in the fieldwork. She paid careful attention to the animals’ different personalities and social behaviors, which mainstream scientists discounted as “anthropomorphizing”. She saw a chimp she called David Greybeard take a stick, strip off its leaves, and use it to fish termites out of a mound to eat. At that time, tool-making was considered to be an exclusively human ability. Critics didn’t believe Goodall’s observations as she “didn’t have a degree and I was just a girl,” but there was film footage. A year later Goodall was admitted to Cambridge University’s PhD program in ethology, the science of animal behavior. She received her degree in 1966 and returned to her research in Gombe.

Goodall’s life and career took another dramatic turn in 1986. At a scientific conference in Chicago on chimpanzee behavior, she was stunned as several speakers showed the extent of habitat destruction across Africa. As she described it, “I walked in a scientist and walked out an activist.” Not long after that she founded the Jane Goodall Institute UK, a “global organization that empowers people to make a difference for all living things.” The institute supports conservation science, habitat preservation, primate protection, and sustainable livelihoods across Africa. Goodall emphasizes the importance of local communities taking charge of conservation, so that both people and ecosystems benefit.

These days, Goodall is focusing her scientific credentials, considerable energy, and irresistible charisma on Roots & Shoots, a global education program which encourages young people to “implement practical positive change.” Members of Roots & Shoots range in age from kindergarten to college. The program puts students in charge, empowering them to decide what issues they want to tackle in their communities. Students complete service projects in three areas: one for people, one for animals, and one for the environment.

Jane Goodall shares a stuffed chimpanzee with a very young admirer after speaking at Sierra Nevada College.Dr. Goodall is a witty, empathetic, and genuinely inspiring speaker. As was evident when the room was opened up to questions after the lecture, her impact – as a scientist, a conservationist, and a human being – has been immense. And she’s not done yet. At 85 years old, she is traveling 300 days a year to spread the word. She is clear-eyed about the challenges but focused on the future.

The impact of her visit will continue to resonate, as Incline High School and the Lake Tahoe School are pairing up to create their own Roots & Shoots chapter. Bob Graves, headmaster of Lake Tahoe School, is excited to bring the organization to the North Lake Tahoe area. “One of the toughest things educators face these days is the need to have their students focus on issues and solutions beyond themselves and their own personal needs,” Graves said. “The students and parents are pretty pumped right now after meeting Jane. The key will be to keep those positive vibes going and to channel the energy and enthusiasm into Roots & Shoots as soon as possible – exactly why we will be starting the new chapter this spring. There is plenty of room for additional conservation measures and community involvement in the Tahoe community,” he said. “Better yet, to create an informed and motivated group of students willing to get involved now, bodes well for our region and the world’s future.”

Sierra Nevada College is grateful to Lake Tahoe School for making the lecture with Dr. Jane Goodall possible.

Sustainability – environmental, social, and economic – is a core piece of SNC Tahoe’s academic mission. The college offers an interdisciplinary major in sustainability, which looks at the topic from multiple perspectives. SNC Tahoe also has an active environmental science program, with majors in ecology, earth science, and natural resource management. Our partnership with UC Davis through the Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences gives students direct access to current research and conservation efforts in the Lake Tahoe region.