Inspiration is almost like divine intervention. There you (or someone else) are, living your life, totally unaware that the next moment or moments, everything will change for you. You don’t know what you don’t know, but when you do, nothing will ever be the same again. Inspiration can come from anywhere–even from within, but there are people whose entire life’s work has inspired generations, and continues to do so. Such is the legacy of Jane Goodall, a woman inspired by her love of nature who followed her dreams against all odds to become one of the most important and inspirational women in science. Such is the story told by the fantastic new Becoming Jane exhibit at the Field Museum, and as we’d find out, the story of one of the Field Museum’s own employees as well, who was fortunate enough to have been able to correspond with Jane herself, and in fact credits that communication with her career here.
Becoming Jane is an intimate walk through the life of Goodall that above all emphasizes what can come of encouraging your children’s dreams, and emphasizes the need for community among women in science. Goodall was fascinated with the plant and animal life around her from a very young age, and already someone who could inspire others. This curiosity was encouraged by her parents, and from a young age, Goodall inspired the same love in others, even creating something called the Alligator Society with her siblings and friends where they hosted nature camps, created magazines and opened their own nature museum one summer.
Goodall’s dream was to work with animals one day, but reaching that dream would prove difficult for several reasons, not the least of which was that the world of science abroad was male dominated. Even with a murky way forward, though, her love for Africa and animals kept her pressing forward, and despite the odds against her ended up at the farm of a friend in the Kenya Highlands in 1957, where she got in on the ground floor as a secretary before meeting and being mentored by Louis Leakey, an archaeologist and paleontologist who was seeking a chimpanzee researcher. She began her career as a secretary on the project, but her passion, drive and discoveries today make her the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees as well as a globally renowned activist.
Becoming Jane at the Field Museum is a beautiful look at what it took Goodall to get where she was–and how her persistence and passion, as well as the help of her family and mentors, took her to such great heights. Throughout the exhibit you can see artifacts from this incredible journey–from a recreation of the first camp she stayed in with her mom, who had to chaperone her, to notes from her time observing the chimps and even her doctoral research. It emphasizes the amazing accomplishments of Goodall, too, from that doctorate, which she received without having had an undergraduate degree, to her groundbreaking discovery that these chimpanzees she’d come to know and understand so deeply were more human than anyone had expected. Her observations showed them using tools and engaging in other behaviors that were, until that point, thought to be distinctly human, leading her mentor Leakey to declare “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!” and changing the way science looked at primates.
In Becoming Jane, you’ll get to read excerpts from Goodall’s diaries, explore recreations of camps, watch videos and even attempt to talk with animals, as well as getting a great look into Goodall’s works outside Africa, including her current work to stop animal trafficking, and even be asked to contribute something of yourself to science, whether it’s to participate in local science programs, try to make an effort to conserve or donate to several worthy causes. Becoming Jane, is, in a word, inspiring. It’s inspiring to see childhood dreams nurtured and realized, to see a woman who time and again challenges norms and breaks ground, and to understand the depth and gravity of her work and its impact on the world as well as women in science today.
Becoming Jane is a story that is particularly close to the heart for the Field Museum, especially for Dr. Abigail Derby Lewis, phD, the Field Museum’s Senior Conservation Ecologist was someone whose life was touched, and changed, directly by an interaction with Jane herself. , who is the Field Museum’s Senior Conservation Ecologist and was a scientific advisor on the exhibit and who we interviewed for this piece, has had personal experience with Jane and her legacy–and says were it not for correspondence with Jane, she may not have taken the life path that led her to the Field Museum at all.
Like Jane, Abigail Derby Lewis was fascinated with and inspired by animals. “I saw my first silverback gorilla at the St. Louis Zoo at 9 years old. I was there with my dad, and I’m sure you’ve had this experience either at Lincoln Park or Brookfield Zoo–that when you look into the eyes of any primate, especially great apes, you recognize something.”
“It really impacted me,” Derby Lewis explains. “It really affected me. And I remember saying to my dad, ‘I want to work with gorillas when I grow up.’” And he was like, ‘oh yeah, you could totally be a veterinarian.’ You know–there wasn’t really the language around that kind of job. So the thing I heard most when I would talk about a future job working with primates was ‘That’s not a real job!’ ‘That’s not a thing’ or “You should do something more suitable or appropriate’ with the subtext being ‘appropriate for a girl.’ Right? It’s not safe for girls to go running around the tropics studying primates.”
Luckily, fate and Nat Geo intervened. “You can imagine my shock and utter joy when I finally realized who Jane Goodall was” says Abigail. “I think it was one of hte very first times she was on National Geographic. My parents got Nat Geo and I remember seeing that spread and thinking– ‘it IS a job! She has MY job! See! I could do that!” And I was just obsessed. It was an obsession with trying to understand how I could be like Jane. How could I do the same thing?”
Derby Lewis continues, “So I think this exhibit is as much about the incredible, inspiring life and work of Dr. Goodall as it is about really trying to inspire the next generation of Janes. Being able to have that kind of representation available to young people, especially young girls, and to be able to say “You might not have even known this was a thing you can do, but it is, and I’ve done it, and you can do it too.”
As it turns out, Lewis has first hand experience with this kind of inspiration, and from Goodall herself, no less. “As a high school student, I thought, ‘this person has done this.’ There was really no road map on how to do the same thing, and so I wrote her and I asked her–how do you do this? What would you recommend? And…she wrote me back.”
“While I like to think that makes me special, it’s what she did. She hand wrote postcards to so many people, especially young people who contacted her. Not only did she write me, but when I was 19 and decided to go to Africa for the first time, my mom, who was always an enormous support–I think, momentarily, was like “Oh crap. My 19 year old daughter is leaving for another continent” and so she wrote Jane and was like “Hey, do you happen to have any contacts in Africa my daughter can connect with while she’s there?” And Jane wrote my mother back. It was just….it was the gesture itself–to have somebody like her write back to a nobody 19 year old kid from Joliet, Illinois.”
“That kind of time that you take to write to somebody, you know–It makes you feel like she noticed, and she is supporting you. It’s a very special feeling, and I think that we can give that kind of support to young women. We have an amazing Women in Science program here at the museum, for postdocs but also undergrads and high school students–and it gives them an actual salary. It pays salary to do this, and it really helps level the playing field. Having people intern and not paying them is a surefire way to increase inequity and who can really be able to go after jobs and have experience and a leg up in these sorts of fields.”
“At the very end of the exhibit, we ask ‘How can you be like Jane?’ and that’s a part we thought a lot about. Even though I went far away to study wildlife and we need to be doing that, there’s also a real need to be able to protect our forests but also to re-establish habitat in all the places where we live, work and play, and that includes urban areas. If you’re from this area I’m sure you know, there’s a whole lot of ecological diversity in this region. Being able to join a community science project is one way you can be like Jane. We have one at the Field Museum but there are many of them. Ours is on monarch butterflies and we ask people to monitor their milkweeds. Whether it’s in your yard or a community garden, record how many monarch eggs and caterpillars. That information will actually help us to answer some of these foundational ecology questions, like how successful are small urban spaces in helping to support monarchs. We actually don’t know that. So I have a 7 year old and a 10 year old and they’ve been doing that project in our yard for the past 3 years.”
“So yeah, connecting to those kinds of opportunities. We have a ton of Field Guides for the region–45 different field guides. You can download them, they’re free, and they can help you identify things. Spiders and birds and dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, native plants–the most common trees in this region. No matter what you like there’s a field guide for everyone there and at different levels of interest and expertise.”
“Jane was interested in nature, and wanting to do something for it. It’s about the awareness that it’s actually here and important and what we do, what we plant, matters greatly. That’s a part we really thought about in Becoming Jane–how do you acknowledge and value this work but also connect it in a bigger way–which is what she has always advocated for–to open the playing field for everybody else to come and do that work.”
It was a pivotal moment for Abigail too. “Anthropology was a very male dominated field well into the 1990s. I was not taught evolution in high school. I did my first anthropology class because Jane wrote in a postcard “get a degree in some ‘ology–anthropology is really great!” and obviously she worked with Dr. Leakey so that particular ‘ology was on her mind. And I ended up being an anthropologist–but that kind of arc is really interesting. And I would not have the job or the life I have now had those early events and interactions not happened.”
“I didn’t have strong female mentors up through graduate school–it really wasn’t’ until I came here that I had strong female mentors. And so while Jane wasn’t my mentor–gosh I wish–she helped to fill a gap there. I had a mother who supported me and I had this distant entity that I looked up to that I actually had some kind of connection with–and that in and of itself can make a difference.”
While maybe not a traditional back and forth, Jane gave Abigail Derby Lewis guidance, and confidence, at the same time even going the extra mile to reassure her mother. Lewis takes out the postcards and begins reading the one Goodall had written her mother. “Just to say how delighted I am to hear how Abigail has followed her dream” she begins.
And while the two never managed to cross paths in Africa despite Abigail’s studies taking her to some of the same places as Jane Goodall’s ongoing efforts did, the two did meet briefly at a ChimpanZoo conference at the Lincoln Park Zoo in 2006. But despite that exciting moment there’s more that Lewis would love to tell her.
“Obviously, I’ve kept the postcards all these years. They’re not a postcard–they’re a feeling of confidence and support. And I don’t know that she’d remember, but I’d love to tell her–I never actually got to say ‘Those two postcards you wrote to my mom and I kind of shaped my life.’
This is the story and the message of Becoming Jane, come to life in a next gen Jane who’s now working at the Field and helping to inspire even more women in science, and we hope it’s inspired you to not only check out Becoming Jane at the Field Museum this summer, but to get involved with nature in a more personal way, and to encourage the generation after you the way that Goodall, and in turn Abigail Derby Lewis, still endeavor to do.