Researcher earning impressive national accolades

contact: Jeanne Baron
| WMU News
Photo of Poling with an APOPO HeroRAT.

Poling with an APOPO HeroRAT

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A longtime Western Michigan University psychology professor is being lauded in numerous circles this year for his research expertise and contributions to society.

Most notably, Dr. Alan D. Poling will receive this year's International Humanitarian Award from the American Psychological Association when it holds its annual convention today through Aug. 7 in Denver. The award is APA's highest honor. It recognizes extraordinary humanitarian services and activism by psychologists, including the professional or volunteer work they conduct in the psychology field with underserved populations.

APA is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. Its mission is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.

In February, Poling received the Outstanding Contributor Award for the 2015-16 fiscal year from the California Association for Behavior Analysis for his lifetime contributions to behavior analysis.

Just three months later, the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis presented him with its 2016 Award for Scientific Translation. The honor, bestowed during the Association for Behavior Analysis International annual convention, recognizes society members and nonmembers for their activities that have an impact on the application of science or for their technology transfers that address socially significant problems.

Helping to save lives

Poling was nominated for APA's humanitarian award by Dr. Amy L. Damashek, WMU associate professor of psychology, in light of his work since 2009 with APOPO, a Belgian humanitarian organization based in Tanzania. As this year's award recipient, he will speak on "Scientific Research, Human Welfare and Me" in an invited address to APA convention attendees Saturday, Aug. 6.

APOPO trains African giant pouched rats to pinpoint buried land mines and identify tuberculosis in laboratory samples. The rodents—dubbed HeroRATs—offer a cost-effective way to detect these two scourges in low-income and low-resourced countries.

"They're remarkable in their physical abilities," Poling says. "They climb well. They dig well. They're quick. And they learn readily." Plus, he notes that the rodents are so light they hardly ever trigger a mine, and they have highly sensitive noses as well as several behavioral characteristics that keep them healthy and working hard.

APOPO's founder, Bart Weetjens, recognized the potential value of detection rats in 1998, and his organization spent years breeding, domesticating and training HeroRATs. Poling joined the team in 2009 to increase its research capacity, improve the scientific rigor of that research and further streamline rat-training processes. He has been going to Tanzania periodically since then, often with students.

Weetjens says initially APOPO wasn't producing many scholarly papers, so not everyone appreciated what HeroRATs could do. He says Poling is responsible for the steep increase in overall reliability and effectiveness of detection-rat technology in recent years as well as for scientifically substantiating the rats' value as land mine and TB detectors in Africa and Asia.

"If APOPO's HeroRATs were finally accepted as a reliable detection tool, credits go to Dr. Poling and his researchers," Weetjens says. "Looking back over the last seven years...it is not exaggerated to claim that Dr. Al Poling and his team of researchers have significantly impacted humanitarian action in the world."

In announcing Poling's humanitarian award, APA not only acknowledged Poling's work with APOPO, but his broader research activities.

"Throughout a career spanning more than three decades, Alan Poling has studied learning in humans and other animals and used principles of learning to change behavior in beneficial ways," APA wrote. "He has also played a significant role in building capacity in [Africa and Asia] by writing proposals to secure funding and by providing talented and dedicated graduate students who, like Poling, are willing to live, work and deliver humanitarian services under challenging conditions for protracted periods."

Alan Poling

A WMU faculty member since 1978, Poling teaches in the behavioral analysis program, directs the behavioral pharmacology laboratory and participates in the University's growing high-profile efforts to improve the lives of those with autism and other developmental disabilities.

He is a Fellow of Divisions 3, 25 and 28 of the APA and has written or co-written 12 books and some 350 articles and book chapters. In addition, he has served as the research advisor for 35 doctoral recipients.

Poling and his student teams have conducted research and done conceptual work in such areas as applied behavior analysis; behavioral pharmacology; clinical psychopharmacology, with special emphasis on the effects of psychotropic drugs in people with developmental disabilities; gender issues; animal welfare; quantitative analysis; learning processes; and research methods.

In 1996, Poling received WMU's Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award, the highest honor the University can bestow on a faculty member, and in 1999, he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of West Virginia University.

He earned a bachelor's degree from Alderson-Broaddus College in 1972, master's degree from WVU in 1974 and doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota in 1977.

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'HeroRats' detect landmines, tuberculosis' | Jan. 4, 2011