Meet DEB: Prosanta Chakrabarty, SBS Program Officer

Basic Profile

Dr. Chakrabarty searching for cave-dwelling fishes in Honduras.

Dr. Chakrabarty searching for cave-dwelling fishes in Honduras.

Name: Prosanta Chakrabarty

Education: BSc. McGill University, 2000 (Zoology), Ph.D. University of Michigan, 2006 (Evolutionary Biology)

Home Institution (Rotators): Louisiana State University

NSF Experience/History: I’ve been a Program Director for just a few months, but I’ve been on a couple of review panels, and an external site visit team. I also have had several awards (and many misses) from NSF. Because I had a good view from the outside, I thought it would be good to see how the sausage is made inside NSF.

Research Experience/History: I’m an ichthyologist, and I’m interested in knowing how fishes are related to one another to better understand evolution and Earth history. For instance I work on blind cavefishes, and some species that are each other’s closest relatives are found far apart, even on different continents; because they likely haven’t moved out of their cave habitats, they act as little time capsules telling us how the landmasses around them were once connected. The DNA of these animals can reveal the last period that two groups of organisms last shared a common ancestor. The DNA can reveal a great deal about the biological history but also provide insights into geological history. [Here is a link to a short (<5min) talk I gave on the subject:  ]

My lab is mostly focused on freshwater and marine fishes from the Neotropics (the Caribbean, Central and South America) and the Indo-West Pacific (everything from the Persian Gulf, Japan, Australia, Madagascar, etc.). As a natural history curator (I’m curator of fishes at the LSU Museum of Natural Science), I am charged with building a collection of specimens and DNA samples to help us better understand the Tree of Life of fishes. My lab and I do at least two or three international trips a year, as well as many local ones, to build a collection that is diverse and can be used by researchers around the world to study fishes. I also teach both Evolution and Ichthyology at the undergrad level at LSU. I enjoy teaching very much as well.

Competitions I currently work on: As a Program Director in the Systematics and Biodiversity Sciences Cluster, I’m handling pre-proposals, full proposals, and DDIGs (Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants) related to phylogenetic systematics grants in the Division of Environmental Biology.



Describe your current IR/D activities: I came to DEB to give back to NSF and to my community. I also came to get an overview of my field. I’ve been very focused on systematic ichthyology, and since getting tenure a few years ago I wanted to learn how broad phylogenetic systematics really is and where it is going. I’ve been giving a few talks in academic settings including at natural history museums and universities centered around the theme – “What is the Future of Systematics?” I know that is an obnoxious title (who am I to say what the future holds?) – but I’m looking to hear answers not to give them. I think from where I sit I get a good overview of where people are pushing the field forward, so I’m kind of on a listening and reading tour.

I’m also part of a project with one of my postdocs back home at LSU, Brandon Ballengée. He and I have some work through a AAAS funded project called “Crude Life: A Citizen Art and Science Investigation of Gulf of Mexico Biodiversity after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill”

This project is an art/science/outreach convergence to gather data on endemic fishes potentially affected by the 2010 spill while raising the public awareness of local species and ecosystems that may be unfamiliar to them. We will be creating a portable art-science museum of Gulf biodiversity that will go on tour in the region. On my next IR/D trip my lab and some locals will seine the beaches in one of the areas hit hardest by the oil spill. We will bring a portable lab and have locals look at all the creatures swimming under their feet that they have been missing. We will explain how the spill can be harming these species even five years later.

One thing you wished more people understood about DEB and why: I think many people in science think that NSF is a candy store and don’t understand why everyone can’t get some candy. It’s a bit more complicated than that. In my experience, NSF is more like a bank giving out loans. You want a loan? Tell us how you will use the money, and how it will better your field and potentially influence society – when you achieve these outcomes, that’s how you pay back the loan. There is only so much money to go around. If we gave everyone a little money, it would be very little. It wouldn’t be enough to do transformative science or to hire postdocs and pay graduate students who are the next generation. Instead in DEB we are trying to target science that will really make a difference, or that has the potential to do so, and give those projects enough funding to see an impact. I’m really proud of that.

Tell your awesome fieldwork adventure story: I’ve been on nearly 30 foreign field trips now, so I’ve got some stories for sure. Most of them I can’t share here, or maybe anywhere. I’ll refer you to my fish lab blog for some of them.

Dr. Chakrabarty on a collecting trip on the Amazon River.

Dr. Chakrabarty on a collecting trip on the Amazon River.

I can tell you about my recent trip to Panama which we just did in May before I came over to NSF. We went to the Darién Gap – an area I’ve been trying to go for years – the logistics of getting here are very complicated politically. This region is, geologically speaking, young. It was the last section of a sea separating Central and South America to close up. And, the fauna and flora reflects that position linking the North and South American continents. My postdoc Fernando Alda made that trip come together, and we had an amazing time collecting freshwater fishes with the local Emberá Indians. Everything about hiking into one of the last undeveloped areas in the Americas in the shadow of harpy eagles and sloths, far from any city, and in search of new species was something that was very special.

On one night our local guide wanted to catch some dinner and went out with my snorkel, diving flashlight, and a spear. We watched while he shot spikey armored catfishes (Ancistrus), big tetras and cichlids. When we turned off our headlamps and watched him floating in the stream with his bright torch against the darkness it looked like he was floating in space. When he came up he mentioned seeing a striped “macana” – which is the local name for electric knifefishes (the family of fishes related to electric eels). We hadn’t seen any of these yet so I asked Fernando which one he means – “Gymnotus” he said. “We better go get it,” I replied – I didn’t know these South American species were in Panama. It turns out that Fernando was the one that discovered they were in Central America with the first record in 2012 []. Fernando rushed out with a portable amplifier that we can use to translate electric fish signals into sound. We stuck the cables under root mats and listened for their calls – Fernando understood their language – and could recognize the species by listening to the pattern – by the volume he could even determine their size. I was with him when he heard what he thought was a big Gymnotus deep in the roots, we missed a couple times with the dipnet, and then on one attempt we saw the characteristic striped patterns of Gymnotus. I’ve never seen anyone so happy to get a fish. Fernando leapt and danced across the stream as if he had just won the Superbowl. I was glad to see such passion for natural history. The fish was gorgeous too, a long (nearly 2’) dark-green headed relative of the electric eel. It is a fantastic fish, only the second record of the genus in Panama…or is it something else? Something new perhaps? We are looking into that now – stay tuned.

What would someone find you doing in your down time? I love exploring this part of the country with my wife and twin daughters. Part of the reason I wanted to come to NSF was to give them a new experience. My girls, who are identical twins, have been to five countries outside of the U.S. and they are great travelers. Like their parents, the girls love seeing and learning about animals, so we’ve been hitting up all the zoos, aquariums, and museums we can find. We are planning to do some camping trips next.

Who do you admire, and why? Sylvia Earle is one of my heroes. One of the few people to have been in some of the deepest parts of the ocean, and she is such a great inspiration to so many people. I had the opportunity to meet her a couple times this year and just found her so down to Earth and approachable, as well as wise; she is also very giving of her time. She has served in government as Chief Scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and has been a curator and professor, but always an explorer first. I’d like to be thought of in the same way. She blazed her own path in the 60 and 70s when women were not well represented in the sciences – but she pushed through and made it easier for people from underrepresented groups to move up the scientific ladder: that’s also one of my goals – to broaden participation in STEM fields.

I also really admire my permanent colleagues here in DEB. They don’t get much credit, and their job is largely thankless because from the outside it is hard to know what happens inside NSF. Now that I’m on the inside I see how much the other Program Officers sacrifice and the amount of time they put in for the benefit of others. They are really fighting for science and for scientists. I’m only here as a rotator so I’m glad that they are spending the time teaching me how things are done and why things are done the way they are. My colleagues here are definitely the best part of being at NSF.

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