BLACKSBURG, Va., June 20, 2003 – A faculty member in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech has been awarded a $726,476 National Science Foundation CAREER grant to develop a more "holistic" system for the integration of technology, research and education through a project designed to study and protect chimpanzees in Tanzania.
Dr. Taranjit Kaur has received the prestigious NSF funding to support a five-year program entitled "Bridging the Gaps Using Bush-to-Base-Bio-Informatics, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and a Program Called "READ-IT."
"This is all about integrating research and education," said Kaur, who also serves as Virginia Tech's director of laboratory animal resources. She plans to create an "electronic infrastructure" that will take a multidisciplinary approach to developing improved wildlife management strategies in the east African nation.
Kaur, who has traveled to Africa several times, conceived the project around a proprietary program she has developed called "READ-IT," an acronym which stands for Research, Education, and Dissemination via Information Technology. It represents a multidisciplinary career development strategy that seeks to bridge the gaps between discovery, learning and the diffusion of information in the biological sciences.
"Everything I do brings together humans, animals and the environment, and the dynamic interaction between them," said Kaur. The goal of this project transcends the immediate benefit of using technology and training programs to improve conservation management strategies for chimpanzee populations in the jungles of a nation home to the famed Mount Kilimanjaro, Kaur explains.
To accomplish this greater goal, she plans to focus on the immediate task of helping the Tanzanian National Park Authority (TANAPA) develop science-based management strategies that will protect the free-ranging chimpanzee population from tourism-related problems like disease transmission, habitat destruction, and competition for resources. Because of genetic similarities between chimps and people, both are highly susceptible to influenza, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.
That information will enable those officials to determine a more accurate understanding of the area's capacity for tourism, as well as support the development of more effective management and training programs for professionals and tourists.
A key part of Kaur's program is designed to develop "interesting and compelling content for integrated research and educational opportunities for undergraduate, graduate and professional students at Virginia Tech." Some of those will be involved with the "Bush to Base Bio-Informatics" and the "Geographic Information Systems" components of the program, she said.
Field researchers will gather physiological data on the chimps, and code and process the data using handheld modules with global positioning system capability, Kaur said. The modules will interface with a Virginia Tech-based web-enabled server designed to share information with authorized users.
"My theory is that students are a tremendous resource and that we don't utilize them enough," said Kaur, who views students as key players in a "cross-pollination" component of the program. Students participating in the program will gain interdisciplinary research and educational experiences within a global context by designing communication systems and sharing information with other students, tourists, wildlife personnel, and local communities, Kaur said.
Another goal of the program is to use U.S. technological leadership in a way that supports sustainable global development, promotes conservation, and ultimately leads to a higher quality of life for all in the 21st century, she said.
She seeks to use the READ-IT concept to develop "an integrated electronic infrastructure that will act as a catalyst for the transmission of information across many boundaries, perpetuating a cycle of information transfer and serving as a blueprint for bridging the gaps in other scientific endeavors."
Kaur is collaborating with a number of individuals and organizations on the program, including Dr. Michael A. Huffman a world-renowned primatologist from Kyoto University in Japan; and Dr. Beatrice Hahn, the University of Alabama at Birmingham physician who played a leading role in demonstrating that the AIDS virus afflicting the human race originated from a virus in chimpanzees.
Other groups include TANAPA, the University of Rhode Island, National University of Rwanda, Management Sciences, Inc., international tour operators and others.