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Insects, viruses could hold key for better human teamwork in disasters

In a new and novel study, scientists are looking to nature -- specifically, to ants, bees and viruses -- for ways to improve human collaboration during disaster relief efforts.

At the center of the scientists' sights are a sub-group of their own species -- specifically, civil engineers, who historically have had a limited role in such efforts, especially those involving critical physical infrastructures.

Supported by a five-year $2.37 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and supplemented by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the research team at Illinois is attempting to draw inspiration from the collaboration patterns that honeybees and ants use, and the spread patterns viruses typically take.

The ideas the researchers develop will "augment current collaboration among first responders, including civil engineers, to extreme events involving critical physical infrastructures," said Feniosky Pena-Mora, the principal investigator of the study and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Illinois.

"The manner in which extreme events are addressed will influence the future of our cities, as well as redefine the role of the civil engineer," Pena-Mora said.

In the epidemiology area of their work, the researchers are looking at the spread of infectious diseases in human populations. In the entomology area, they are looking at honeybees' (Apis mellifera) collaborative decision-making process when selecting a new hive or foraging, and at ants' (Solenopsis invicta) behavior when they are under threat.

The research team, which includes biological, computer and social scientists and civil engineers, will apply their natural-world findings to three major areas: collaboration among organizations involved in disaster-relief efforts; the use of information technology to support preparedness, response and recovery tasks; and the emerging role of civil engineers as key first responders to disasters
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Source:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


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