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MARCH 2007

Women of Valor

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Although the four women who received Wings WorldQUEST (WWQ)’s Women of Discovery Fellowship Awards for 2007 are each, on average, only a little bit older than the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation, founded in 1977, an extraordinary event brought them all together on March 1 with Dr. Goodall at the National Arts Club. The occasion marked not only the 5th Annual Women of Discovery Awards, a celebration aptly timed for Women’s History Month, but a rare opportunity to see the world-renowned primatologist, Dr. Goodall herself, who was given a WWQ Lifetime Achievement Award. The young honorees, selected for their courageous and meticulous groundbreaking scientific research, represent the very best in international scientific and field exploration. Their work testifies to the significance of WWQ, a world-class organization dedicated to promoting women scientists from cultures and countries around the globe whose achievements can inspire and educate generations to come—not to mention advancing science. The daring of these pioneering young women is impressive, their achievements are stellar and the impact their work has already had in fields as diverse as glaciology, archaeology, oceanography and ethno-botany is markedly significant. They also seem incredibly modest.

Dr. Dr. Jane Goodall
Dr. Jane Goodall

The ceremony began with the Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Jane Goodall, who spoke of the project particularly dear to her heart these days—Roots and Shoot, an activist 8,000-group educational program in 100 countries, dedicated to engaging young people in over 95 countries in service learning, including cleaning river beds, walking dogs at local shelters, teaching peers about endangered species, organizing peace events, celebrating different cultures.

Remarkably, though they spoke separately to Education Update, each of the young awardees articulated a similar motivating force: to prove they could do it. Challenge, determination to go where few women had gone before—and genuine love of science—pressed them to explore, sometimes in remote and dangerous areas. 

Dr. Constanza Ceruti
Dr. Constanza Ceruti

Dr. Constanza Ceruti, a 34-year-old Professor of Inca Archaeology and Director of the Institute of High Mountain Research at Catholic University in Argentina, who received WWQ’s Courage Award, could boast (though she wouldn’t) being the only female high-altitude archaeologist in the world working in the Andes. Crediting Prof. Juan Schobinger and Dr. Johan Reinhard, as two major academic influences in her life, Dr. Ceruti exudes a quiet enthusiasm as she talks about her challenge to get people to accept the inconvenient truth that mining development and climate change are threatening their lives and the planet.

Grace J. Gobbo
Grace J. Gobbo

For Grace J. Gobbo, from Tanzania (Field Research Award), the goal has been to document indigenous medical practices and plants before time runs out. Working with the Greater Combe Ecosystem Project of The Jane Goodall Institute, she has been interviewing healers and collecting local plants. She feels strongly about involving young people because time’s winged chariot is at her back—traditional African healers are dying.  Myths about witchcraft persist, she notes, alongside mounting scientific evidence that her pharmacological findings are indeed helping to alleviate some illnesses. She recognizes that she’s a woman working in a male-dominated culture and for a  government not yet acting on evidence of the adverse effects of deforestation and mining. But she’s hoping that the data she’s been collecting will find their way into school curricula  and that corrective action may be “customized” to local traditions. 

Dr. Erin Pettit
Dr. Erin Pettit

Dr. Erin Pettit, from the USA (Earth Award), studies climate change and is the founder of Girls on Ice, a mentorship program that brought her to the attention of WWQ. A young woman with an engineering degree, whose fond memories of hiking on Mt. Rainer in Seattle with her father and brother prompted her to rethink her career possibilities, she turned from designing hybrid electric cars to studying glaciers, excited by a course she took by chance at Brown University in Planetary Geology, led by Prof. Peter (“Sparky”) Shultz. Here, her heart told her, was her heart’s work.  As much as she loves hanging from ropes on ice mountains, she sees herself eventually becoming a teacher (“I love it”), no doubt applying the lessons she’s learned as a leader of field expeditions where attending to the group dynamic is the number-one challenge.

Dr. Terrie Williams
Dr. Terrie Williams

Dr. Terrie Williams, a marine biologist from the USA (Sea Award), has tracked the negative impact of global warming on Weddell seals in Antarctica. She recalls how people would tell her—not too long ago—not to bother pursing science beyond a masters, insinuating that such research belonged to men. But a high-school biology teacher convinced her that she could “do it.” She came from a family of brothers and never felt she could not do it, though she does acknowledge a problem now. In some societies women, especially those who, as she does, gather together other women for field work are not welcome. But, clever as she is charming, Prof. Williams now includes a “token male” in her field expeditions, and so far, so good. 

WWQ (www.wingsworldquest.org), a unique New York City-based nonprofit co-founded by Milbry Polk and Leila Hadley Luce, in addition to preserving, promoting, honoring and publishing the inspiring contributions of pioneering women explorers, offers unique programs and resources related to field expeditions, scientific research and education. The Jane Goodall Institute is a global nonprofit “that works on behalf of chimpanzees and other great apes and helps people make a difference for all living things.” Its mission includes recognizing the “interconnectedness” of all people, animals and the environment.#



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