Hope in a Digital World: the Making of Virtual Jane Goodall


How do you spread hope in a digital world? Make hope virtual! In an exciting and groundbreaking undertaking, students at George Washington University are creating a virtual version of Dr. Jane Goodall to help spread her message of conservation and compassion for today, and the world of tomorrow. The project, a partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute, is housed in the GW Innovation Center.

Jane Goodall

Dr. Goodall and GW researchers examine captures taken of her in the Motion Capture and Analysis Laboratory last month. These images will be critical to recreating Dr. Goodall’s image on the “Virtual Jane” platform. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

Over the last year, this partnership between the Jane Goodall Institute and GW centered on how to engage the next generation with Jane’s wisdom and her research. The “Virtual Jane” project was born, and is being led by an interdisciplinary group of GW students involved with the Innovation Center’s worked on the framework and technology. The “Virtual Jane” team is comprised of a group of students studying computer science, business, marketing, anthropology, art and more.

Ryan Steed, a sophomore majoring in computational economics, wants the project to most engage young people, who may never experience Gombe or the rainforests of Tanzania, to feel inspired and empowered to act.

“We’re trying to bridge the generation gap between Jane Goodall and young people today. We want to see how we can take that message of essentially compassion that she spreads and put it in the language of youth and on a platform that everyone is excited about.”

Jane Goodall

Researchers examine captures taken of Dr. Goodall in GW’s Motion Capture and Analysis Laboratory. Dr. Goodall visited Foggy Bottom to speak with students working on the “Virtual Jane” project. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

To make this sci-fi undertaking a reality, Dr. Goodall recently visited GW’s Motion Capture and Analysis Laboratory (MOCA), run by SEAS Professor James Hahn. Researchers captured her likeness and movements which will enable the team to create “Virtual Jane.”

“Jane is really excited about students being involved in conservation education, and she’s really cognizant of the ways students can contribute. We got a lot of new ideas. It’s very energizing to be reaffirmed like that from somebody you respect.”

With a current team of nine students, they hope to launch “Virtual Jane by end of 2020, and include new students. With concept art, storyboard and other design elements in place and user experience feedback through collaboration with School Without Walls the project is well under way. As a vital part of JGI’s strategy to secure Dr. Goodall’s legacy, it is a necessary and thrilling advancement that will bring Jane to the people in ways never before possible.

“Dr. Goodall’s message of hope and her expertise in conservation are more important today than ever before. The GWIC Virtual Jane project is a good example of the kind of partnerships that JGI is pursuing to help scale sharing of Dr. Goodall’s message around the globe and to new generations.” – Linda Berdine, vice-chair of the Jane Goodall Institute’s board of directors


The Jane Goodall Institute is a global community conservation organization that advances the vision and work of Dr. Jane Goodall. By protecting chimpanzees and inspiring people to conserve the natural world we all share, we improve the lives of people, animals and the environment. Everything is connected—everyone can make a difference.

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About Author

Ashley Sullivan is the Director of Storytelling & Marketing for Communications & Partnerships at the Jane Goodall Institute USA, where she works to connect individuals with Dr. Jane Goodall's vision, and the JGI mission to create a better world for all by protecting the interconnections between people, other animals, and the environment. Ashley graduated Stony Brook University with a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology and a minor in Biology, and is pursuing a Master's of Science in Environmental Science & Policy at Johns Hopkins University with a focus on Environmental Justice. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, now a D.C. resident, she has a varied background including 10+ years of expert communications and digital marketing in the social and environmental non-profit sector. Her intersectional approach to this work has been shaped by a holistic world-view, having traveled to Madagascar and Ecuador for conservation research projects, leading communications for youth social justice filmmaking organizations, and as a part of several professional groups advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in environmental spaces including Greens REALIGN. With skills ranging from conservation fieldwork, policy and advocacy campaigns, strategic communications, art, digital media, and design, Ashley believes in sharing information to empower and in the magic of storytelling to transform hearts and minds. Through growing understanding, empathy, and justice, she is igniting positive change to create that better, more equitable world, every day.