Meet DEB: Chris Balakrishnan


We didn’t hire the bird, we hired the person holding the bird. Photo Credit: Rhett Butler (different Rhett Butler)

What’s your name and role here at DEB?

My name is Chris Balakrishnan and I am a rotating Program Officer with the Evolutionary Processes Cluster.

Where did you go to school?

I received my undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Pennsylvania and my Ph.D. in biology from Boston University.

Where is your home institution?

East Carolina University.

Tell us about your research.

I’ll admit to being a bit of a dabbler. The main themes in my research are birds & their DNA (and RNA). Beyond that I’m interested in fundamental aspects of how genomes evolve and how species form, but also more mechanistic questions about how the brain and immune system function in ecological and evolutionary contexts. I primarily study birds as they offer wonderful opportunities to study the evolution of complex social behaviors. I’m particularly interested in those species that display unusual (wacky) behaviors. These avian oddities provide an opportunity to understand evolutionary changes in behavior. As an example, some of my work focuses on brood parasitic birds. Unlike most birds, brood parasitic birds don’t provide any parental care to their young. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. Brood parasitism has evolved seven times independently in birds and I’m interested in how and why this happened. The hope is that these studies will inform our understanding of the causes of variation in parental care behavior and the processes that lead to major behavioral innovations.

Why do you want to serve with NSF?

Prior to interviewing for my position here, I hadn’t really thought much about serving as a Program Officer. What had struck me though was that colleagues that had spent time here were uniform in that they truly loved the experience. Upon interviewing I really began to see why they enjoyed NSF so much and my interview convinced me that this was going to be a wonderful experience. I expect that being part of the proposal review process will be highly rewarding, and I really look forward to interacting with a large group of colleagues.  I’m excited to work with the dynamic and diverse group of people here and to gain this new experience. Selfishly, I know that exposure to all of the exciting work being done at NSF will help my research career as well. I’m also looking to complete a lifetime sweep of living in all of the major northeastern cities. In addition to New York, Philadelphia & Boston, I’m happy to add DC to the list (technically, I live in Alexandria though so maybe it doesn’t count). Baltimore, you are next!

What are you looking forward to in your tenure here at NSF?

First and foremost, I’m really looking forward to the stimulating discussions that surround the proposal review process. Additionally, however, it seems like I’m entering NSF in the midst of a lot of interesting changes aimed at enhancing integration among subdisciplines in biology. I’m truly looking forward to seeing how these and other new programs develop.