Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


48th Annual Convention; Boston, MA; 2022

Event Details

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Special Event #154
Presidential Scholar Address: Giant Rats to the Rescue! Applied Principles Shape Behaviors and Communities
Saturday, May 28, 2022
6:00 PM–6:50 PM
Ballroom Level 3; Ballroom East/West
Instruction Level: Intermediate
Chair: Carol Pilgrim (University of North Carolina Wilmington)
CE Instructor: Carol Pilgrim, Ph.D.
Presidential Scholar Address: Giant Rats to the Rescue! Applied Principles Shape Behaviors and Communities
Abstract: Adopting fundamental principles of behavior, the Belgian NGO, APOPO, developed a hero out of the most unlikely of creatures, the African giant pouched rat (Cricetomys ansorgei). The rats are native to Tanzania where they have historically been viewed as pests. APOPO established operational headquarters in Tanzania in 2000 to train the rats to use their keen sense of smell for locating buried landmines in former conflict zones. Landmines not only pose serious safety and psychological risks, they also hamper economic development by blocking access to agriculture and displacing communities. To date, APOPO’s rats have safely located more than 140,000 landmines and unexploded ordnances (UXOs) to help return more than 65 million m2 of safe land to local communities in Africa and Southeast Asia. Research that began in 2003 has successfully trained the rats to also detect tuberculosis (TB). Until recently, TB stood as the world’s deadliest infectious disease. Working in partnership with local health authorities in Sub-Saharan Africa, TB-detection rats screen upwards of 100 sputum samples from suspected TB patients in under 20 minutes. To date, the rats have efficiently identified more than 20,000 patients that had otherwise been misdiagnosed, effectively increasing case detection by 40%. Ongoing research continues to inform training techniques by revealing the universal nature of behavioral principles. For example, recent results suggest interventions developed to prevent extinction in scent detection dogs and laboratory rats may reduce the need for routine maintenance training of deployed landmine-detection rats. Applying standardized training procedures in additional lines of research provides insights for optimizing how the rats are deployed and where. Recent results show they can be trained to detect other pathogens posing health and economic risks, contribute to various environmental initiatives by detecting contaminated soil and illegally trafficked wildlife, and even support search and rescue efforts following natural disasters. Through the process of training scent detection rats, APOPO’s collective work continues to shape behaviors, perspectives, and livelihoods.
Dr. Cynthia Fast is the Head of Training and Innovation at APOPO, a Belgian NGO that trains African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) for scent detection of humanitarian targets. Cindy has more than twenty years of experience training a variety of animals, including rats, mice, pigeons, and hermit crabs, in addition to family cats, dogs, birds, and horses. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA where her research focused on comparative cognition and behavioral neuroscience. While a member of the Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience department at Rutgers University, she investigated the neurobiology of rodent olfaction including how learning influences olfactory sensation and perception. Her research has received numerous professional awards, including the prestigious James McKeen Cattel Gold Medal from the New York Academy of Sciences. She is a member of the Pavlovian Society, Society for Neuroscience, Women in Learning, Association for Chemoreception Sciences, and Comparative Cognition Society and has served as a mentor in both Women in Learning and the STEM Alliance Next Scholars program.
Target Audience:

All convention attendees are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Learning Objectives: At the conclusion of the presentation, participants will be able to: (1) consider shaping strategies tailored to the experiential factors of the individual; (2) evaluate methods for objectively quantifying behavioral changes and their feasibility; (3) explain broader societal and environmental impacts of a project applying behavior analysis; (4) discuss the breadth of applications for the science of behavior analysis.



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Modifed by Eddie Soh