None of my friends will tell you I’m like the average college student. I don’t party. I don’t consume excessive amounts of alcohol (well, in fairness, it doesn’t take much–two glasses of wine and I’m done and falling asleep for the night.) I’ve never gone to a concert in my life and I don’t see movies all that often. Likewise, I love learning. I love reading a good textbook. I can pore over a textbook easily and be excited about what I learned and think of how I can make this apply in a “real life” setting. I love just sitting at home and looking at scientific journal articles, looking at videos of things like chimpanzees mourning the dead.
I’m not like the rest of my family, either. My family is a group of athletes by nature; many of my cousins grew up adoring animals (the only thing I think I’ve had in common with them), but eventually grew up and found more affection for sports and other things. Whereas, I was more interested in politics and things that immediately affected people. I identified as a social scientist first above all else.
So when I heard Jill Pruetz would be coming to give a talk at the university I’m currently attending for our Darwin Day ceremony as the keynote speaker–I was excited. I had been told about how kind she was before this when I discussed wanting to study with her to my teaching assistant at La Suerte last summer; but I didn’t know what to expect about her. And I’ve done some research on Pruetz’s work but I can’t believe how underrated it is by some of my peers. They can all recite Goodall, some can get Fossey’s work, and even rarer–Galdikas’ (though, never by her name), yet none of them know of Pruetz.
At the risk of being called a sycophant, her work is, well, to me–unbelievable in the best possible way. Not only does she study chimpanzees in a habitat more similar to some of the earliest human ancestors (savannahs); but–she finds unique things that are variations found within other chimpanzee species in other parts of Africa. And as weird as it might sound to some–I feel a little bit of a spark of “kinship” with those chimpanzees for being different.
The Fongoli chimpanzees have been noted to pass on elements of “culture”–learning and sharing by observation how to become effective hunters by using and sharpening wooden branch spears. They also have an understanding of fire, a sense of empathy, use caves and play in water as methods to adjust to hotter temperatures. These findings are astounding and show the breadth of behavioral variation in a species dependent upon the geographic climate.
Pruetz, herself, was an incredible speaker. As someone who’s had a lot of public speaking experience under her belt (and spoke to audiences with 400+ people on a few occasions), the way she spoke was fantastic. Her presentation was phenomenal with her words, the videos she presented, and the pertinent information in understandable ways. But that isn’t what made me feel privileged to be in her presence (although, I very much so was before this): the way she interacted with us was what did it. During her speech, a little girl would ask a few questions every now and then–intelligent ones, at that!–ranging from “What are the chimpanzee’s predators?” to “How can you tell them apart?” and her responses were gracious, patient, and clear.
I had asked her a question about the effects of climate change on the behavior of the Fongoli chimps in the decade she has researched there. As soon as it left my mouth, I felt stupid as hell; after 10 years, how can you really tell these things? Way to go, dumbass, I thought. But, much previously, she answered the question with grace and poise and was kind enough to not make me feel like a dumbass at all.
After taking our questions, I was able to go up and talk to her with two of my friends. She was kind and patient, willing to discuss with us and invite us to apply to her school for graduate work (which I was thinking about already, but now it’s a definite). I don’t care much for musical rockstars or celebrities, but I really get starstruck when it comes to scientists who do and find amazing work and discoveries in the field. The three of us left raving about the talk–dying to be just like that one day in terms of providing something of scientific worth to the world.
Meeting Jill Pruetz was like meeting your most admired rockstar. Except mine studies chimpanzees that spearhunt, play in water, rest in caves, and understand fire.