Monday, April 11, 2011

Training Life-saving HeroRATs in Africa: Psychology Speaker Dr. Alan Poling

Dr. Alan Poling, professor of Psychology at Western Michigan University, will speak at Ferris State University on Tuesday, April 12 at 7 p.m. in IRC 120 as part of the Psychology colloquium series. He will discuss his work to train rats to sniff out two very serious threats to human health and safety – landmines and tuberculosis infection.

Poling also works as a psychopharmacologist and behavior analyst for the Tanzanian non-governmental organization APOPO—the Dutch acronym for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development. The organization was founded in the mid-1990s out of humanitarian concerns about unexploded ordnance in formerly war-torn regions. In January, Ferris Psychology professor Dr. Jeffrey Nagelbush read an article about Poling’s work and began efforts to bring Poling to Ferris to speak.

“I knew about the problem of land mines and efforts to ban their use for many years,” says Nagelbush. “Then, on the front page of the Grand Rapids Press was an article about Alan Poling, who helped train rats to detect these mines. I was fascinated and intrigued. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to show our students how material they were learning in our courses could be used to impact the world in a meaningful way.”

Each year, such leftover devices kill thousands of persons, approximately half of them children, often in nations that lack the financial or technological resources to practice effective demining. African pouched rats trained through the HeroRATs program at APOPO use their keen senses of smell to locate landmines for removal, clearing over 4,200 unexploded devices to date.

The HeroRATs are ideal for this type of work because they are low-tech, highly trainable and lightweight, so they do not trigger the explosives as other animal or human workers might. A readily available and environmentally sustainable resource, the rats require only good care and training – and a banana or peanut reward – for their efforts.

“A unique aspect of APOPO is that it's dedicated to coming up with local solutions to local problems,” says Poling. "For me, this has certainly been a life-changing experience and a great opportunity to do humanitarian work.”

Recent research also has shown the rats to be highly effective at sniffing out lab samples infected with pulmonary tuberculosis, which kills more people worldwide than any other infectious disease. Standard detection methods for TB involve culturing, which is accurate but very slow, or microscopy, which is slightly quicker but less accurate. The HeroRATs can smell samples much more quickly, sniffing hundreds of samples per day, while a human technician can analyze only 30 or 40. Poling’s research focuses on establishing the rats’ accuracy, which his preliminary findings suggest is better than microscopy. HeroRATs’ faster, more reliable and lower-cost detection method has already been a lifesaver for some. Since APOPO began using the HeroRATs in TB detection services for five Tanzanian hospitals, the rats have detected 620 TB cases that first-round screening missed, increasing detection by 44 percent.

“Our rats presently are used in second-line screening. The patients they detect were missed by the directly observed treatment centers and would not receive treatment, save for being detected at APOPO,” explains Poling. Since each person with active TB infects 15 other people per year on average, HeroRATs have likely prevented 9,300 additional cases of TB infection.

Poling applies learning theory to the rats’ training, regimenting it and establishing protocols for research and data analysis, which makes his work of special interest to Psychology students at Ferris.

“One of the major topics we discuss in many of our Psychology courses is learning. We present a number of different types of learning. Dr. Poling uses some of these types of learning we discuss in his training of the African rats. So our students can see a direct application of course material to helping solve a real world problem,” explains Nagelbush.

“The Social Sciences department believes it is important for our students to apply their skills and knowledge to the real world. Many of our faculty members have students do projects that involve working with people or institutions outside of the classroom. Dr. Poling's talk will provide a model of how the information students learn here can be helpful to the wider world,” Nagelbush adds. “We hope he might inspire some of our students to look for similar opportunities in their own lives.”

For more information on Dr. Poling’s lecture, visit or contact Dr. Nagelbush at

For more information on APOPO and the HeroRATs program, visit

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