Finding Ada with the primatologists

October 15th is Ada Lovelace Day; a time for celebration of women in science and engineering. I wanted to write something short about women in primatology. Now, clearly I am not a woman, but I am in science and there have been a number of women who have influenced and inspired me.

My field has been fairly well defined by a number of very influential women over the years. Two of the most famous, of course, are Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey – pioneers who went out into the wilds to start exploring how chimps and gorillas, respectively, lived. There were some astonishing discoveries that completely rewrote how we view these animals, for example, Jane Goodall found chimps using tools in the wild. Over many years Goodall, Fossey and others documented the remarkably complex social lives of the species that they studied and fought for the conservation of the animals and their environment.

Last week I was teaching a class that featured the work of Susan Perry and colleagues on social traditions in white-faced capuchins. It documents some bizarre and fascinating social traditions (if you’re a capuchin, sticking your finger in someone else’s nose is amazing fun). It was a paper that I have read a number of times, but it always inspires me. There are data from 12 groups of monkeys across three study sites with nearly 20 000 hours of observations. Now that really is awe-inspiring.

For me there have been a number of women who have influenced my academic career much more directly. I would love to list them all, but my fear is that I will leave someone out. There are many women whose expertise on primates, psychology and parties has made the years since I first started my graduate studies so enriching.

But the person who has influenced me most thus far in this fledgling academic career of mine is Rachel Kendal, who was my PhD co-supervisor. As a supervisor she was always supportive and generous, liberal with praise and empathetic when she had to tell me I was talking nonsense again. Even when she moved to another university and with a young family she was (and remains) a great mentor and role model.

I hope that in the not-too-distant future there won’t be a need to especially celebrate women in science, that glass-ceilings will have been completely destroyed and playing fields entirely levelled. However, it should always be the right time to celebrate those who have inspired us and for me very many of those happen to have been women.


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