A recent news story about chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall reminded me why she’s one of my favorites of the scientific glitterati. Here’s a link to the Huffington Post video story. Basically, she’s saying that researchers need to have empathy with their subjects in order to conduct ethical and meaningful science. I agree!
I had the chance to meet Jane (I don’t think she’d mind if I call her by her first name – she’s that kind of a person) back in my glory days as the environmental reporter for my college newspaper, the venerable “Minnesota Daily” (best college newspaper in the country!) Jane came to town to give a talk on chimpanzee behavior and DNA, and how similar they are to our own.
She presented to a packed auditorium and afterwards, hosted a news conference. I sat in the front row along with a photographer for the paper. I don’t remember what questions I asked, but I do recall being impressed by Jane’s seeming kindness and approachability.
During the news conference, the photographer and I surreptitiously discussed good locations in the room to take her photo afterwards, both agreeing (with the logic of college students) that the potted palm next to her podium would be ideal. She did work in the “jungle,” after all! However, the thought of asking Jane Goodall to stick her head among palm fronds filled me with anxiety. Would she be insulted? Have us thrown out of the room? Turn around and walk off in a huff?
Once the news conference was over, no other reporters seemed to want to talk to Jane, so I approached – probably gushed about what a big fan I was – and put forth to her the photographer’s plight of getting her photo against an interesting background. I couldn’t believe our luck when she pointed to the palm and said, “Well, why not here?”
Amazed and relieved, I agreed. Unfortunately, the palm tree photo did not run with the story — the photo editors ran a boring head-shot instead. But I will always remember how gracious and accommodating Jane was, and how willing she was to stick her head in a potted palm for a college reporter.