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Meet Mary Cablk, Ph.D.

  • Published in Featured Researchers

Mary E. Cablk, Ph.D., is an associate research professor of biology at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev. She specializes in the broad category of “detection,” which includes the use of canines to sniff out targets such as human remains, wildlife, and contraband. She holds a Ph.D. in Forest Resources from Oregon State University, and has been a member of the DRI community since 1999, when she moved to Reno for a postdoctoral position. Mary is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Nevada Reno, where she helped to found a forensic anthropology program. She is an Auxiliary Deputy with local sheriff offices, and deploys her own dogs at the request of law enforcement to assist with search and recovery missions. Her current working partner is a Belgian Malinois named Inca, and her last partner, a German Shepherd named Banshee, is retired but lives with her.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

MC: My research focuses on what we call remote sensing, which is very simply the ability to collect information about the world without being in direct contact with it. My research is primarily focused on two ways of gathering such data: one is with olfaction, which I do through canine studies; the other is with optical remote sensing, or image processing – things like satellite images, LIDAR data, and aerial photography.

DRI: How did you become interested in this line of work?

MC: With remote sensing, that went all the way back to when I started graduate school. I took a class in remote sensing and just thought it was fantastic. I was blown away by looking at the earth from space, from satellites. I have an artistic side to me, and when you look at satellite images, they’re works of art. So it appealed to me on both levels: it was challenging science, and there’s a great deal of beauty in it. The olfaction side came out of a more personal experience with having someone who needed rescue in Zion National Park, which got me interested in search and rescue. I have always loved animals. I actually wanted to be a veterinarian at one time, so search and rescue with dogs was a very natural avenue for me to take in my spare time. Over the course of training the dog, I saw what the dog could do, and that’s what got me into olfaction. From there I made the leap from doing search and rescue as a professional volunteer to incorporating the science of detection into my research. Olfaction, particularly the canine detection component, is probably one of the most challenging areas of research in my opinion, because it draws on a whole range of fundamental sciences. It’s chemistry, it’s behavioral science, it’s cognition, it’s neuroscience, it’s psychology, it’s some physics. It draws upon a whole breadth of disciplines that you have to bring together to really understand how it works.

DRI: In your research, you’ve used dogs to locate everything from desert tortoises to land mines to human remains. What is the importance of your work?

MC: All of my research is applied, meaning it’s focused on trying to solve problems. I address real-world challenges by conducting and developing structured, rigorous programs of study using the dog teams as a means to collect data. Before you can look at microbes, for example, you have to develop the microscope. From there you can develop an electron microscope to see things in greater detail. That’s what my research does, brings rigor to the use of dogs for detection, which is really data collection. As an example, in the desert tortoise-canine program, we were developing the capability of dogs to find a federally listed ‘threatened’ species, which required incremental steps using scientific inquiry. We asked questions about whether the dogs could do it, how well they did it, and established deployment parameters for dogs working in the desert. Ultimately, we developed a tool to find a missing cohort (size-class) in desert tortoise populations that weren’t accounted for in the method that researchers were using at the time to do the population estimates of tortoises. These were small tortoises, the size of a half-dollar, which are very difficult to locate. Without the information on this cohort there is a gap in understanding and being able to project tortoise populations. You have to find these small tortoises to learn about them, and to be able to conduct scientific inquiry on the how the populations are faring overall, and where the survival issues are. The dogs proved to be extremely capable.

DRI: What is something that you hope to accomplish through your research in the future?

MC: One of the things that I have long wanted to be able to do, when we get the mathematics and the technology aligned, is to translate what dogs smell into a visual representation using virtual reality. People rely heavily on sight, so if there is a way to translate odor plumes in 3D mapped to the color wheel, it could open opportunity to explore and understand a dog’s nose view of the world. Being able to truly visualize how they perceive the world through smell, like how we see it visually - I think that would be fantastic.  

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You can learn more about Mary and her research on her web page: https://www.dri.edu/mary-cablk-research

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