Ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty reveals, “We are all fish.”
December 21, 2021
What is ichthyology? It's the study of fish, and Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty is a master of it. He joins President William F. Tate IV to discuss his journey around the world to study some of the planet's most unusual creatures. He also shares his experience as a curator for the LSU Museum of Natural Science, the importance of translating scientific work for the public, and his efforts to train and inspire the next generation of naturalists and explorers.
One of the world’s leading ichthyologists, Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the curator of fishes at LSU’s Museum of Natural Science. His research focuses on the study of fish to help understand evolution and the history of the Earth. Among other things Dr. Chakrabarty is a TED Senior Fellow, an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair.
[00:00:00] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: And I find myself to be quite common and almost meditative when I'm in caves. It's a strange feeling. I don't think most people feel that when they're in there, but I do.
[00:00:11] President William F. Tate IV: Okay. I'm going to let you have that one.
[00:00:14] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: You have to join me. Come out, come out with me next time.
[00:00:17] President William F. Tate IV: I may join you, but it won't be today. Welcome to "On Par with the President". In this episode, you'll hear from LSU professor Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty, who has traveled around the world to study unusual creatures. He is a professor in the department of biological sciences and the curator of fishes at LSU's Museum of Natural Science. His research focuses on the study of fish to help understand evolution and the history of the earth. Among his many awards, he is a Ted Senior Fellow, an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, and a Fulbright distinguished chair. "On Par with the President" is a podcast that is focused on LSU community members who are doing great things. And on the whole, the point of this podcast is to talk to the extraordinary people who are affiliated with LSU who are on par. Welcome.
[00:01:34] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Thanks for having me.
[00:01:35] President William F. Tate IV: We're teeing off now. You grew up in Queens, New York. How did you go from the concrete jungle as they say of New York city to underwater exploration?
[00:01:47] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Yeah, that is a big leap. Queens is not the place that you think of when you think of a place for someone who loves the environment. But I did, and I grew up watching a lot of nature documentaries, and my parents would take me to the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History, and that's where I fell in love with animals. And so it was from those places that got me to think outwards from the concrete jungle of New York City to where I am today.
[00:02:15] President William F. Tate IV: So why, why fish specifically, you know, I mean, did you grow up fishing in New York? Was there something about... I don't see a whole lot of people fishing in New York. What's the deal with the fish?
[00:02:26] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Yeah. If they're fishing in New York, they're not eating that fish, probably.
[00:02:30] President William F. Tate IV: They're not eating that fish I can guarantee you that.
[00:02:31] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: So there was a little pond actually nearby in Queens, Oakland Lake, that we caught some sun fish, occasionally, but I think my first memory with fishes was when I was eight years old, my parents took me to India, which is where they grew up. And I remember seeing all these beautiful fish one day when there was some flooding and all these beautiful, brightly colored fish were showing up, sort of, in streams, connecting to each other, and I saw how lakes and rivers were connected. And I think I liked fish then, but I really didn't think of studying fishes until I was an undergraduate at McGill University, working actually on an internship back at the American Museum of Natural History. And I worked with this woman, Dr. Melanie Stiassny, and she loved fishes, and she has a very infectious personality, and she sorta steered me towards the path of ichthyology, and I'm glad she did so.
[00:03:26] President William F. Tate IV: Well, what do you like about your job? What's your passion in this?
[00:03:30] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: I love everything about it. I can't believe I get paid for this. Not that I don't want to get paid for it. But I love the travel, especially travel with students, so they can experience the things that I have: going to visit new places, meet new kinds of people, discover that there's still a lot of things to see in this world. That it's not all between, you know, you and your phone. That the environment is still something worth saving and conserving, and that there are new species to discover and new places to see. And I love traveling with students, especially. That's my favorite thing.
[00:04:11] President William F. Tate IV: Well the foundational purpose of a university is to discover the truth. You discovered 13 new species of fish. Tell me about what it's like to discover a new species, let alone 13.
[00:04:24] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Yeah, I think the discovery process that people imagine is, you know, you're going out into an unexplored area and, you know, you are collecting, and you see something new and you're like, "My God, Eureka! This is a new species." And sometimes that happens, and it's amazing when it does happen. Usually what happens is you're at a new place, sometimes not well explored and you're coming back and you're looking at the collections that you have. And what we do . At the Museum of Natural Science is we have this wonderful reference collection of different species that we can compare what we collected with what's been known from the past, and we could say, "Hey, this thing doesn't quite fit with this species that we thought it might've been. And so, in fact, it may be a new species." And then of course you do more work. You do some molecular work. You do some morphological comparisons and you say, "Okay, this is a new species." So maybe that's not as sexy as the "Eureka" moments, but I have had those "Eureka" moments where it's like, "My goodness, you know, this is definitely a new species. I can't wait to tell people about this."
[00:05:28] President William F. Tate IV: That's exciting. Now I've seen some video of you climbing into some caves, pretty dark places. I imagine probably cold, clammy, you know, the stereotypic kind of thing that people are paranoid to go into. Tell me about the first time you climbed into one, and did you have any fear, and how did you manage that?
[00:05:48] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: I remember my first cave very vividly. I was a post-doc traveling to Madagascar and had no caving experience. I was pretty afraid of what the experience would be like there in Madagascar. There are Nile crocodiles in caves. There are many other things to worry about, and our first cave was actually a sink hole. So it's like a lake that had dropped down 30 feet. And we were like, "Well, we gotta get in there. That's where the fish are." So we tied up some ladders to a tree and there was a lip over the thing, so you couldn't even see where you're climbing over. And then I was feeling daring. So I was like, "I'm going to be the first one in there. I'm going to prove to myself that this is not a scary place." And I swam around for about half an hour. Didn't see anything, and I was scared to death the whole time. But we did discover new things in there eventually. But then for some reason, when I go into caves, I feel comfortable. I feel secure, and that's not usually how people feel. So you never know how you'll experience that moment when you get to a new place, a new environment, like a cave. And I find myself to be quite common and almost meditative, when I'm in caves. It's a strange feeling. I don't think most people feel that when they're in there, but I do.
[00:07:07] President William F. Tate IV: Okay, I'm going to let you have that one.
[00:07:11] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: You have to join me, come, come out with me next time.
[00:07:14] President William F. Tate IV: I may join you one day, but it won't be today. Well, I hear you tell people that we're all fish. Tell me more about that.
[00:07:26] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: You know, when I look at the human body, I think about the origins of our brain and our forelimbs and our organs, and it really starts with our aquatic ancestors. And so when my students are dissecting sharks, as they were for much of this semester, I say, "You know, look at this brain. You know, there's a cerebrum. There's a medulla. There's all the parts that you have. They're shaped a little differently, but they're here, and this is where it started. And when we look at their muscles and their nerves that connect to them, it's the same muscles and nerves that we have. They may have slightly different names, at least the muscles, but the nerves don't. And so for me, explaining to people that, look our origins of our organs and our body parts started in our aquatic, ancestors and fishes. And, you know, you think about the first fish that came on to land, you know, that was our ancestor. And so we're fishes. We're descendants of that fishy ancestor. And there are still fishes swimming about in the oceans evolving. And then there are things that evolve from that first fishy ancestor that gave rise to all the mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and us. And so I like to go back and show students, you know, where are these body parts of ours coming from?
[00:08:46] President William F. Tate IV: So have you discovered any species close to home here in Louisiana?
[00:08:50] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Yeah. That's one of my favorite stories to tell, because I was a New York City kid coming to Louisiana, not really knowing much about the state. Thinking, "There's not going to be much new to discover here. Everything must be known. We're so close to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico." But I had a chance to go out on the Pelican, this research vessel that we have, and we were collecting fish that I was very unfamiliar with. And we collected one called the pancake batfish. And so that Louisiana pancake batfish just through pure serendipity, that description came out during the 2010 oil spill. And so it got a lot of press. And for me, that's the moment where I felt like, the most like a Louisianan. During that oil spill, that concern for the environment and the description of that new species, which is a very funny looking fish. I mean, it's not called a, a pancake batfish cause it looks like every other fish. It's very flattened and a little grotesque, but one of my favorites. So that was the first species I described from the area.
[00:09:53] President William F. Tate IV: Well, that was part of the discovery front. Now for your discoveries, you received numerous awards and fellowships, and you're going to be the president of your professional society. You're president-elect right now, which is the highest honor one can receive when you are a scholar and a scientist. Which accomplishment have you received that you're most proud of?
[00:10:17] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: I think the one that has been most fulfilling is the TED Senior Fellowship. I was giving a talk, a TEDx LSU talk for the CxC, the communications across the curriculum group here. And they said, "You should apply for this fellowship." And I said, "What would that do for me?" And I applied. I got it. And they've taught me so much about science outreach, about communicating to the public, about my research. For me, that's the one that led to all the other awards that I've gotten. So I'm very lucky and privileged to be part of that group.
[00:10:52] President William F. Tate IV: As part of your work at LSU, you're the Curator of Fishes for our LSU Museum of Natural Science. What does that entail? What does that mean?
[00:11:02] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: It's the best job. I love saying I'm curator of...
[00:11:05] President William F. Tate IV: I thought I had the best job?
[00:11:06] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: No, you have a tough job. You got like, you got to manage people. I got to manage jars.
[00:11:12] President William F. Tate IV: Okay. There you go.
[00:11:13] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: So, what it entails? We have this beautiful museum on campus. It's a public museum with exhibits. And then behind the scenes, we have lots of individual specimens, which we use for teaching, which we use for training and which we use, as I mentioned before, for a reference collection for comparing species and seeing change through time. So you can pick up a blue gill from the LSU Lakes now and compare it to a blue gill caught on the LSU Lakes a hundred years ago and say, "What are the chemicals in its body? What are the changes in its body that we see over time in these different populations?" And so you could see the effects of climate change. You could see the impacts of pollution. You can also compare that bluegill with a bluegill from Canada. And say, "Are there population differences? Is there something going on that's different over time and over a geographic area? And for me that's the best job. So, maintaining those collections, which is not as easy as it sounds, but taking care of those and sending out loans to people who are studying this around the world. We have an amazing collection of DNA, of birds, mammals, fishes, reptiles, et cetera, that we send thousands of loans a year, around the world so other people can study them. And then of course, we use that in our teaching and outreach as well. And showing a kid a giant, smelly blob fish, or a shark, you know, and their eyes light up, you know, that's a fun part of what I get to do as well. So, I do have the most fun job on campus I think.
[00:12:54] President William F. Tate IV: All right. I'll grant you that. You do. I know you're committed to fostering access, inclusivity in science, in the academy, and you're also part of the Scholarship First initiative. Talk a little bit about how you think science and scientists can do a better job of making science accessible to the public and to a broad span of the demographic groups who maybe historically haven't been engaged with it.
[00:13:21] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Yeah, certainly. It's actually part of what I do that I think is maybe the most important, is making sure that we're training people that maybe historically have not been able to have the opportunities to go to the places I've gone and to learn the things I have. And that's because of racism, because of sexism. And so for me, building scientific infrastructure where there is none, or has less compared to where I grew up, is very important. So that could mean, you know, building a reference collection in Kuwait. Or for going, working at a local foster agency and talking to the kids there about what it means to be a scientist and what it looks like to be a scientist. And for me, training people that are from underrepresented groups, especially makes me realize how lucky I am, and how privileged I am. And for me, going back and helping those folks that didn't have those opportunities and saying, "Hey, there is room for you in academia. There is room for you in science. You can contribute something to science. Come work in my lab, or come learn about this thing that you love. And let's make a safe and welcoming environment for you." For me, that's more important than any award or anything else I do. Making a space that's safe for everyone to experience and learn science.
[00:14:47] President William F. Tate IV: It sounds like you like collaboration, and I know that you are the Director of the LSU Center for Collaborative Knowledge, a center that aspires to bring faculty together from different areas and departments to work together on projects. What's your thinking about how collaboration and this unity sparks innovation?
[00:15:07] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Oh, love the CCK, and thank you for mentioning that. It's a group that I didn't know we needed until Sue Marchand, who is a Boyd professor, talked to me about it and created it and sorta strong-armed me into becoming the director. And I'm glad she did. So what it does is bring science professors and humanities professors at LSU to get together and talk about what mutual interests we have, and that could be Aristotle and Darwin, or it could be about, you know, working on a grant with ORED to talk about, you know, what we can do to foster more collaborations across campus. You'd be amazed at what conversations happen when you bring a French professor and an evolution professor, or a poly sci person with somebody who's maybe deeper in the humanities. So I love hearing those conversations, and they do lead to grantsmanship and to collaborations. And, you know, there needs to be more opportunities for scientists to talk to the humanities folks and get a different perspective of what academia is. I think one of the best parts of being at LSU, just these connections across different departments, instead of being insular, we're very outward thinking.
[00:16:22] President William F. Tate IV: It does sound exciting. I hope I get an invite. What advice would you give someone who aspires to be a naturalist or explorer, scientist or an educator?
[00:16:33] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Yeah. My advice for young kids who want to explore is to get every opportunity they can to explore, whether that means traveling abroad or, you know, going to the LSU Lakes or going into a forest and taking time to see what's around you, you know? Flip over some logs, see if you find a frog, you know? Look underneath leaves and even in your backyard. And so exploring, I always think, starts close by and hopefully that sparks an interest in exploring the world, because the world is still big, right? It's still a big wondrous place that you can't learn and experience just from watching TV or a documentary. Getting out into a new country, a new place, that you haven't been is still an experience worth having. And it seems more and more that as we focus on our phones and our computers that we do less of that and turning those off for a moment and going outside and, you know, it could be as easy as walking down to the LSU Lakes in the rain and seeing what's different about that area, you know? You can see foxes and opossums and armadillos right here. And not enough people have experienced those things.
[00:17:46] President William F. Tate IV: All right. Well, now we're switching up a little bit. Some more fun questions. Fun is relative as as you know. So I grew up going to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and you went to the museums in New York. Why should people visit museums? Especially the one on our campus? Why is it so valuable?
[00:18:08] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Yeah, our beautiful museum of natural science, I think it's valuable, because it's a first step to exploring. So our exhibits talk about, you know, where to find this species in Louisiana, that maybe only appeared one time in the past hundred years or something that may have gone extinct, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker that ever lived in North America. And so when they come to the museum, they see this deep history. They can learn about Louisiana's past, but they can learn about, you know, where Louisiana was a hundred million years ago by looking at our geology exhibits or that there used to be Mastodon walking around our campus. So it's a great place for kids to grow their imagination about what the past looked like, but also about what species we have here today that are worth saving. It's a fun place, and it's free. You know, you just go in there and you can experience the world in a, you know, not a gigantic building. And I think that's a great thing to have on campus. I know you've enjoyed your visit there. And then after you go to the exhibits, if you get a chance to go behind the scenes, to see what specimens we have and for us to go at a different level and talk about the science, I think that even adds more value to what we have on the middle of campus here at the museum.
[00:19:33] President William F. Tate IV: For a lot of folks it's the holiday season, and I want to know, do you have a favorite dish during this season?
[00:19:41] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Yeah, I do. My wife is a wonderful cook, a really wonderful cook, and she very rarely makes the same thing twice. So I have to ask for my favorite dish and that's French onion soup, so soupe à l'oignon, and it's yummy. I don't know if you've had it. It's like a bread toasted with cheese on it, and the French onion soup and it's yummy. And I can't wait to have that. I hope it gets cold enough for it, cause it hasn't been quite cool enough for me to have that, but I do like that on a cold Christmas Day.
[00:20:13] President William F. Tate IV: Outstanding. It does sound very good. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed chatting with you, and I thank you for what you do on campus. It's very exciting, and I know that our students and community members will benefit from your spirit of wanting to share knowledge. And so, thank you for what you do and have a great break or enjoy the cave.
[00:20:37] Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty: Thanks. I appreciate it. So glad to be chatting with you today and having this experience with you.
[00:20:48] President William F. Tate IV: Take care.