Dr. Ken Schweller, professor of computer science and psychology at Buena Vista University, has been elected chair of the board of directors of Great Ape Trust in Des Moines.
Under the leadership of Schweller, the seven-member board has spent the past several weeks assessing and redefining the Trust’s research efforts, laboratory operations and administrative organization as it charts a new direction for 2012.
One result is a new partnership with Bonobo Hope, a charitable organization that is launching an international fund raising effort to support Bonobos around the world and at the Great Ape Trust. The Trust had previously been supported by its founder, Ted Townsend, but with that funding source ending as originally planned, the Trust is now working with Bonobo Hope to become self-supporting.
The Trust is also conducting a national search for a scientific director. This new position will be responsible for the organization’s research trajectory, the acquisition of grants and the administration of research programs by Great Ape Trust scientists as well as visiting researchers from collaborating academic and scientific institutions. Dr. Heidi Lyn, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, is serving as interim director.
“For Great Ape Trust to succeed and remain a viable scientific organization in Iowa, we need to increase our research and be more successful in obtaining grants and funding,” said Schweller. “We’re confident that our partnership with Bonobo Hope and the addition of a scientific director will help us accomplish those goals and strengthen the scientific credibility of the Trust while maintaining the highest quality of ape care.”
He added that the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who last year was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and the global media attention her bonobo research program garners, will attract a quality field of candidates. Savage –Rumbaugh is the Trust’s senior scientist and president of Bonobo Hope.
Schweller began his relationship with the Great Ape Trust in 2004 following the visit of Savage-Rumbaugh to speak at the BVU campus.
Through a partnership with BVU and the Trust, Schweller took a sabbatical during the fall 2010 semester to work exclusively with the scientific research center to develop computer platforms for scientists to use in studying great ape intelligence and language.
Schweller and his computer science students have been working with Great Ape Trust researchers over the past three years on various projects, including construction of a robot, called “Robo-Bonobo,” that members of the bonobo colony at the Trust can control with a joystick to interact with people. Two years ago, students in Schweller’s first-year seminar class developed a site on the Second Life 3-D virtual world platform, which showcased the work being done with the Trust’s bonobos.
Schweller, in collaboration with his BVU students, also developed software programs to test the apes’ mathematics abilities; constructed various games and puzzles to test ape cognition and problem-solving abilities; helped modify the lexigram keyboard the bonobos use to communicate with humans; developed a laptop version of the keyboard for field use; designed “match to sample” experimental software; and developed a training device to help humans learn to use the lexigrams.
Schweller plans to retire at the end of this academic year, but says BVU students will continue to be involved in the Great Ape Trust’s research endeavors. “The kind of research being done at The Trust is truly interdisciplinary and will attract students to BVU with interests in computer science, biology, psychology and the language arts.” He says. “Nothing is more motivating for future scientists than the opportunity to participate in such truly significant and important work.”