Who gets pooped on by chimpanzees, zig-zags through a mountainous forest to elude elephants, and has been recognized by members of the U.S. Congress for her impressive research?
The first undergraduate student from the United States ever invited to study the world’s largest known community of chimpanzees and to gather research data to build a foundation for understanding how human diseases—including Ebola—can be transmitted to and move through the animals.
“Individuals matter in stopping the spread of disease because disease has no boundaries … I have made it a personal goal to advocate for the development of generic medications for infectious diseases that unfairly affect the developing world.” —Anika Clark ’14
By gathering data to model how disease spreads through the nearly 200 chimps in the Ngogo community in Kibale National Park in Uganda, Anika Clark ’14 may be able to help identify and develop vaccination plans to protect this and other groups of chimpanzees from being devastated by transmissible human diseases for which the chimps have no resistance.
Clark, a biology major, spent four weeks in Africa doing field research under the direction of Kevin Potts, a biology instructor at Augsburg and one of the nation’s leading primatology experts. His studies on chimpanzee conservation, food, habitat, and foraging behaviors are featured in some of the world’s most prestigious primatology journals.
Potts earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale University and studied under the Yale faculty who founded the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project in Kibale National Park. It’s through his decades-long study of chimpanzees, in which he’s watched some members of the animal group go from juveniles to adult leaders, and his deep professional and personal relationships with the project’s founders that he was able to invite Clark to conduct research on this unique group of chimpanzees.
Undergraduate research—an opportunity for hands-on practice of skills helpful to science majors and necessary to succeed in graduate school—is an important part of an Augsburg College education and is evidence of how the College lives out its vision of educating for lives of purpose. Clark was among nearly 100 Augsburg students who conducted summer research in 2014, spending many hours in the lab and in the field to solve complex problems.
GATHERING DATA IS DIRTY WORK
Fieldwork is grueling.
“You have to be physically and mentally alert at all times,” Clark said of the work she did in Uganda. “Elephants can be in the forest. You have to move away from them quickly … once I zig-zagged down a mountain ravine to get away.”
The work also can be very, very dirty. Even gross.
“Once, a chimpanzee in the canopy pooped on me and my field notebook,” Clark said.
But she wasn’t deterred.
Potts acknowledged the physical demands of fieldwork. He said it’s not uncommon for researchers—including graduate-level researchers—to burn out after a few weeks, especially in places as rugged as Ngogo. Clark was up and in the field by 7 a.m., walking for miles and as many as 10 hours per day in the forest to find where chimps were feeding so she could gather her data.
FINDING A KEY TO CHIMP CONSERVATION
Clark’s research is unique because she is creating a baseline for understanding how infectious diseases spread in the largest group of chimpanzees on Earth. While some other researchers are trying to understand dispersal of illness among chimpanzee troupes of about 65 individual animals, nobody else is seeking to explain how disease moves through Ngogo’s population of nearly 200 individuals.
“Chimpanzees are strange among mammal species,” Potts said. “Unlike most other mammals, chimps that make up one social group rarely are together all at the same time. Instead, on a day-to-day basis, small foraging parties go out to look for food, and members of groups can change daily.”
This means that unlocking how an infectious disease spreads is complex because chimps don’t interact consistently with the same community members day after day. Unraveling this mystery may allow people to protect chimps from transmissible human diseases for which the animals have no immunity. An Ebola vaccine for chimpanzees is in development and could feasibly be used on wild chimps in the near future. But vaccinating all the chimps would be prohibitively expensive and logistically impossible.
“If we can identify a few individuals who are disproportionately gregarious and, therefore, more likely to spread a disease to others, we can target them for vaccines and stop an outbreak,” Potts said.
Uganda’s forests may depend upon this understanding, too, since chimps are prolific distributors of seeds from the tree fruits that they eat and thereby ensure reforestation and new growth.
RESEARCH GRABS ATTENTION OF NATION’S LAWMAKERS
Clark’s grit in the field and outstanding achievements in the classroom have garnered attention in the nation’s capital. Last spring, she was selected to present at Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C.
This annual event highlights outstanding undergraduate research and was a chance for 60 selected students from more than 800 applicants to meet with policymakers and lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
“Anika’s work stood up exceptionally well against top-tier student researchers from across the nation, and I hope she sees how talented she is,” Potts said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present scientific results directly to those who implement policy based upon science.”
EXPERIENCE SHAPES AUGGIE’S FUTURE
Clark is applying her resolve to working as a medical scribe at three different hospitals. At one of the hospitals, Clark serves as lead scribe, a leadership role that includes responsibility for recruiting other top pre-health students to work as scribes. Clark’s determination to excel is further readying her for the challenge of applying to medical schools, her next step toward fulfilling her goal of one day working for Doctors Without Borders.
Through Doctors Without Borders, an internationally renowned humanitarian organization that provides assistance to countries overwhelmed by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters, and malnutrition, Clark will have the opportunity to use her talents and gifts to alleviate some of the world’s greatest global health problems. The organization also is recognized for its dedication to serving people who experience neglect and discrimination from local health systems.
“Individuals matter in stopping the spread of disease because disease has no boundaries. The world is connected through trade, aviation, and immigration,” Clark said. “I have made it a personal goal to advocate for the development of generic medications for infectious diseases that unfairly affect the developing world. An infectious disease in one part of the world must be considered a global threat.”
As Clark turns her sights toward medical school and a future serving as an international doctor of medicine, other Auggies will head into the lab and field with faculty to unravel problems and seek solutions to better our shared world.
WEB EXTRA: While Auggies have worked to protect chimpanzees from infectious diseases in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, these animals also face constant threats from poaching. Visit The Ngogo Chimpanzee Project to learn more about the chimps and how you can help in their conservation.