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Women’s History Month Spotlight:
Professor Cynthia Wambsgans Talks About
Dr. Jane Goodall and STEM

Professor Cynthia Wambsgans (far right) and Dr. Jane Goodall (center)
Professor Cynthia Wambsgans (far right) and Dr. Jane Goodall (center)

Women's History Month traces its roots back to the first International Women’s Day in 1911, yet it didn’t become a national celebration until 1981, when Congress passed the first Joint Congressional Resolution proclaiming a “Women’s History Week.” Year after year, the week continued to be well-received, and in 1987, Congress expanded the focus to an entire month. Each year, Women’s History Month celebrates the history of women in schools, workplaces, and communities.

This year’s theme, “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination,” recognizes the outstanding contributions of women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In recognition of the theme, Professor Cynthia Wambsgans, program director for The National Hispanic University’s science and mathematics department, shares how Dr. Jane Goodall, primatologist and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, inspired her and defined what a woman is capable of in STEM professions.

question When did you first learn of Dr. Jane Goodall? Why was she an inspiration to you?
question When I was in elementary school, I watched a documentary about Dr. Goodall and her work studying the chimpanzees in Tanzania. From the time I saw this video, I carried this image in my head of what an adventurous, intelligent woman’s life could look like, and I knew that I wanted to do something as adventurous in my own life. I pursued this passion for adventure after graduate school, when I lived and worked for two years in a small village in Tanzania teaching high school chemistry and math. While working overseas, I actually had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Goodall at Gombe Stream National Park. I went to shake her hand and got so excited that I gave her a bear hug! To this day, it’s one of the best moments in my life.
question How did she influence you and challenge you in your own life and profession?
question For me, Dr. Goodall really defined what a woman is capable of in STEM professions. Her passion, energy, and spirit are contagious, and she brings joy to her work. Dr. Goodall was the first researcher to observe chimpanzees using tools, and she also challenged the idea that chimpanzees only ate vegetation. She showed me, and others, that you can challenge long-standing ideas and experience enormous professional success without ever compromising your own individuality.
question What do you think will be the legacy that Dr. Goodall leaves behind to continue inspiring others?
question Currently, Dr. Goodall devotes a good deal of her time to her organization Roots & Shoots, a nongovernment organization that promotes environmental conservation and sustainability with over 10,000 chapters in 100 countries. As an educator, I appreciate that she is now building the capacity in children throughout the world to carry forward her work and make it their own. That’s the legacy that she’ll leave—not just her incredible accomplishments, but that she empowered others to be just as passionate and successful. It’s this collaboration that will carry us forward.
question What do you consider the single biggest influence or achievement in the last quarter century for women?
question Over the last quarter century, educational access has improved tremendously for women and girls around the world. I recognize that Greg Mortenson is now a controversial character, but a few things that he’s said really resonate with me, particularly the following: “educate a boy, and you educate an individual; educate a girl, and you change a community… Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”
question What would you like to see celebrated in the future during Women’s History Month?
question As an educator, I want to celebrate the accomplishments of my students, particularly my female students, pursuing degrees in engineering, medicine, chemistry, and other demanding STEM fields. I want to celebrate with them as they follow their passions and joys with their chins held high, carving out their professional journeys.