Meet DEB: Caroline Robertson, Program Assistant


Caroline and her pup, Gracie


What’s your role here at DEB? I am a Program Assistant with the Ecosystem Science and Population and Community Ecology Clusters. One of my favorite tasks is coordinating travel arrangements (no, really!) because it breaks up my day and gets my brain going.

What did you study in school? I have a degree in anthropology from SIU Carbondale where I focused on cultural transmission of historical violence (see here for my senior thesis for a better understanding of what I enjoy studying). Currently, I am in school at American University studying Public Anthropology for a master’s degree and continuing to focus on the cultural transmission of historical violence (stay tuned for the online archive I am creating). I am scheduled to receive my degree in August after I finish my thesis, so wish me luck!

What do you love to do in your spare time? Spare time? What is that!? When I’m not doing school work, I spend any spare time playing with/training my Australian Shepherd puppy, Gracie! She takes up most of my fiancé’s and my time, but we love her for it!

Hamburgers or hotdogs? Depends who is cooking it, but if it’s a restaurant, then hamburgers!

Why do you enjoy working with DEB? DEB is full of kind people who are a joy to work with! There are many different personalities here that all have their own charm. I am happiest when working with people and so love to work with the diverse crowd that is DEB (I am an anthropologist after all).


Meet DEB: Olivia (Kirby) Dzurny, Admin. Support Assistant

Name: Ms. (for now- I’m newly engaged!) Olivia (Kirby) Dzurny

Tell Us About Yourself. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri and a student at George Washington University.o2

What do you do here at DEB? I’m a Program Assistant with the responsibilities of an Administrative Support Assistant.  This means I help organize and set-up panels and help coordinate travel for visiting panelists.

What are you studying in school? Creative writing and international affairs – however, most of what I have learned while in college has come from experiences outside the classroom, such as my positions with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the National Zoo.

How did you find out about NSF? I looked for science-based organizations that needed management help!

Cake or pie? Pie – unless it is cheesecake…or unless the cake is actually ice cream.

What do you like about working here? I truly love being surrounded by people who are experts in their field. I love to learn! Having the ability to sit in on panel discussions or lectures is a huge benefit to my position. The people are nice, too.

Where do you want to travel one day? I want to live in New Zealand – partly because of the Lord of the Rings, but mostly because it is gorgeous.

Anything else??? I am interested in studying animals and hope to find a career in helping support museums, zoos, and aquariums around the country. More than anything, I’m an explorer at heart. Traveling and writing are my two biggest passions in life.


Meet DEB: Prosanta Chakrabarty, SBS Program Officer

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.

Meet DEB: Paula Mabee, Division Director

Meet DEB: Paula Mabee, Division Director

Basic ProfilePaula Mabee, Division Director, BIO/DEB

Name: Paula Mabee

Education: Ph.D. Duke University, 1987 (Zoology)

Home Institution:
The University of South Dakota

NSF Experience/History:

I have been the Division Director of the Division of Environmental Biology in the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) since August of 2015, but my history with NSF goes way back. I’ve served on 16 panels and participated in multiple site visits across BIO since 1996, and I have served as an ad hoc reviewer since 1990. I have also been a fortunate NSF awardee. I received my first NSF award – a postdoctoral research fellowship – in 1989, during which I trained in experimental methods in developmental morphology.  This led to my first award as a faculty member at San Diego State University in 1994 for a comparative experimental study of cranial development in teleost fishes.  Following this, I diverged a bit to pursue the development of mobile platform-based field guides with SBIR and STTR funding, leading to the National Geographic Birds birding guide app.  In 2004, NSF supported a collaborative Assembling the Tree of Life (AToL) project for cypriniform fishes (carps, minnows, loaches), for which I was one of the PIs.  Support from the NSF-funded National Evolutionary Synthesis Center for a synthesis working group with the Zebrafish Model Organism Database folks (ZFIN) led to a NSF DBI award in 2007 and another in 2011. These awards supported development of bioinformatics methods to compute across the full range of very diverse anatomical traits and link those traits to candidate developmental genes.  A RCN award in 2010 broadened this type of community-driven data integration by establishing an international Phenotype Research Coordination Network with over 400 participants.

Research Experience/History:

My Ph.D. work and subsequent research focuses on questions at the intersection of evolutionary and developmental biology such as: What is the relationship between developmental and evolutionary change?  What is the genetic basis for anatomical structures that are evolutionarily new? I’ve explored these questions using a variety of experimental and computational approaches, beginning with comparative morphology and phylogenetic systematics, continuing with developmental genetics, and currently bioinformatics. My research contributions include 52 peer-reviewed journal publications, many with student co-authors, and spanning the fields of evolution, phylogenetics, ichthyology, anatomy, bioinformatics, developmental biology, and cross-cutting journals.

Since 2006 my research has been highly collaborative and focused on developing a new bioinformatics approach for connecting the diverse phenotypes of species to the genetic and developmental data from model organisms such as zebrafish and other vertebrates.  Our research team has established methods to connect, search, and compare data from the zebrafish community database (ZFIN) and other vertebrate databases (e.g., Xenbase and MGI).  This has been challenging from the biodiversity phenotype perspective, because in contrast to genomics, where resources are well-developed for computation, it is difficult to render diverse morphological and behavioral features computable.  For example, representing ‘segmented fin rays’ of fishes such that a computer can reason that they are part of fins, composed of bone, and develop from mesoderm, requires a basic logical dictionary of terms called an ontology.  Ontologies appropriate to represent multiple species or phenotypic diversity had not previously been built when we began this research, so we developed these methods and, at the same time, built resources to promote discovery of new knowledge.

The outcome is a resource that combines new software, a database infrastructure, and an interface to serve evolutionary biologists and geneticists.  The connection of genetic, medical, and evolutionary data in one resource –the Phenoscape Knowledgebase (KB)– enables over 500,000 testable hypotheses regarding which specific genes might underlie specific traits in vertebrates and how those traits have changed over time.  For example, modern catfishes do not have tongues and data in the KB implicated a role for the brpf1 gene in evolutionary changes in this trait, a prediction that would have been difficult to formulate without computational methods. Data from our recent wet-lab work validated this prediction [i].

Flathead Catfish; Photo by USFWS, Used under Creative Commons License; Original at:

Flathead Catfish; Photo by USFWS, used under Creative Commons License

More recently we have used this machine logic to ‘expand’ the trait data available for phylogenetic and evolutionary research [ii].  This is an application of these data that had not been envisioned when we initially planned this research.

What gets me excited about this research is the prospect, some day, of being able to join different data types across environment, ecology, phylogenetics, traits, and genetics to make discoveries that are very difficult at present.


Why did you want to work for DEB?

I think that DEB broadly encompasses my scientific home. In the past, I pitched some unconventional ideas and always found they were appreciated in DEB panels. From the outside, the Division seemed to be welcoming to creative research, and now as a NSF insider, I can see that it is.

Of particular interest to me are questions that both enable and require the integration of different kinds of data.  DEB is faced with increasing numbers of projects that require data integration. This is true in both core programs and DEB’s special programs such as Dimensions of Biodiversity and the Long Term Ecological Research program. These projects require that we be able to integrate data across scales. To do this, I think that looking across traditional knowledge domains is critical.

I feel that biologists are at a particularly interesting juncture in comparative work. Although tools are available to aggregate and analyze some data such as genetic sequences, they are only just emerging to integrate other very central pieces such as phenotypes, phylogenies, and environmental variables. An important challenge is to scale up this integrative approach across all extinct and extant biodiversity, enabling visualization of linked data in time and space, and integrating environmental data to produce a fully informed and machine-enabled comparative biology of the future.

Biggest surprise you’ve encountered coming to DEB from the academic world?

Being here has made me realize the extent to which we are living through the Wild West of data. I noticed this first in the Dimensions of Biodiversity program where PIs have been undertaking a lot of one-off processes, without the ease or benefit of standards or best practices. This raises questions about how to use funding to organize the community for greatest efficiency in these early times. DEB funded research has included incredibly heterogeneous data types, so finding effective strategies for integrating data is very challenging.

This leads me to another surprise, which is the level of introspection among DEB Program Officers and staff.  I had no idea the extent to which Program Officers reflected on whether the existing slate of funding mechanisms sufficed to cover the spectrum of science proposed by the PI community.  No one wants a proposal to fall through a gap.  What was not surprising is that DEB Program Officers have a great deal of respect for the PI community.

What would someone find you doing in your down time?

In short, eating and going to art galleries.  Because I’m living in the DC area now, I’m taking full advantage of all it has to offer. It seems there is no end to the variety and deliciousness of area cuisine. I’ve also been enjoying docent tours at the National Gallery of Art and the show currently at the Renwick Gallery.

Simultaneously, I’m reconnecting with colleagues and many old friends. Because of my interdisciplinary, roaming life, I have been a part of several communities that have had little to no interaction, such as evolutionary biology and genetics. When I got involved with data interoperability for example, I didn’t know anyone in that community. Because there are so many meetings and government agencies in DC, people from all of these disciplines come together here.  It is great fun to have the opportunity to be reacquainted with old friends and meet so many new interesting people.

Personally I love to travel, and I love anything having to do with water, from swimming to scuba diving, sailing, and fly-fishing.  Aquatic pursuits are a big part of my life in South Dakota.  I am also enjoying time with my two college-age sons when they visit D.C.

Where should someone go to eat when they visit NSF?

Wow – this the hardest question of all because there are so many awesome places.  I especially love the Spanish and Middle Eastern restaurants.

[i] Edmunds, R.C., Su, B., Balhoff, J.P., Dahdul, W.M., Lapp, H., Lundberg, J.G., Vision, T.J., Dunham, R.A., Mabee, P.M., Westerfield, M. 2016. Phenoscape: Identifying candidate genes for species-specific phenotypes. Molecular Biology and Evolution 33 (1): 13-24. doi:10.1093/molbev/msv223

[ii] Dececchi, T.A., Mabee, P.M., Blackburn, D. 2016. Data Sources for Trait Databases: Comparing the Phenomic Content of Monographs and Evolutionary Matrices. PLOS One 11(5): e0155680. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0155680

DEB 2016 Summer Meetings Schedule

Meeting season is upon us. Here’s a quick overview of the where, when, and who for finding your DEB representatives at annual meetings this summer. Note: Lists of expected attendees are tentative and subject to change. Check back for updates and additional details of scheduled sessions and other outreach activities as they become available.


Society of Wetland Scientists’ 2016 Annual Meeting

31 May – 4 June 2016; Corpus Christi, Texas

Liz Blood (Ecosystems)


EEID (Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease)

3 – 5 June 2016; Ithaca, New York

Sam Scheiner (Evolutionary Processes); Karen Alroy (Science Associate); Diana Weber (AAAS S&T Policy Fellow)


ASLO Summer Meeting

5 – 10 June 2016; Santa Fe, New Mexico

Alan Tessier (DDD); Lou Kaplan (Ecosystems); Maria Gonzalez (Population and Community Ecology); Tim Kratz (Macrosystems & NEON Science); Mike Vanni (Postdoctoral Fellows program in DBI)

Event: NSF Funding Opportunities in Aquatic Sciences; Date: Tuesday, 7 June; Time: 12:00 – 13:30


ASM Microbe 2016

16 – 20 June 2016; Boston, MA

Matt Kane (Ecosystems); Leslie Rissler (Evolutionary Processes)


Evolution 2016 (ASN/SSE/SSB)—austin-texas.html

17 – 21 June 2016; Austin, Texas

Paula Mabee (DD); George Gilchrist, Paco Moore, Leslie Rissler, Sam Scheiner (Evolutionary Processes); Gordon Burleigh (Systematics and Biodiversity Science)

Event: NSF information session; Date: Monday, 20 June; Time: 12:00 – 13:00


Botany 2016

30 July – 3 August 2016; Savannah, Georgia

Gordon Burleigh, Joe Miller & Simon Malcomber (Systematics and Biodiversity Science)

ESA Ecology 2016

7 – 12 August 2016; Ft Lauderdale, Florida

Alan Tessier (DDD); Doug Levey & Betsy Von Holle (Population and Community Ecology); Liz Blood, Henry Gholz & Karina Schäfer (Ecosystems); Janice Bossart (Evolutionary Processes); Cheryl Dybas (Public Affairs); John Adamec (Staff)

Booth: #333

Event: Funding Agency Information Session; Date: Monday, 8 August; Time: 11:30-13:15


North American Ornithological Conference 2016

16 – 20 August 2016; Washington, DC

Doug Levey (Population and Community Ecology)


ecoSummit 2016

29 August – 1 September 2016; Le Corum, Montpellier, France

Karina Schäfer (Ecosystems)


Entomology 2016 (XXV International Congress of Entomology)

25 – 30 September 2016; Orlando, Florida

Janice Bossart (Evolutionary Processes)