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What do you do?
Prosanta Chakrabarty travels the world searching for fish that few humans have ever seen.
The LSU researcher wants to learn what these underwater unknowns can teach about evolution and the history of the earth.
He’s a modern-day explorer, swimming through murky waters and diving into caves in search of seldom-seen species.
“It’s such a wonderful job. It’s a great experience to be having,” he said. “Fish let me do that. They let me go to these weird places and discover them in odd areas of the world that most people don’t get to go to.”
And Chakrabarty, 37, uses his adventures — along with his natural ability to captivate an audience — to teach the world about science.
Speaking at the prestigious TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, earlier this year, Chakrabarty told an audience that ichthyology — the study of fish — is the only science with YOLO in the name.
“Now, to the cool kids in the audience, you already know,” he said. “YOLO stands for ‘you only live once.’ And because I only have one life, I’m going to spend it doing what I always dreamed of doing — seeing the hidden wonders of the world and discovering new species. And that’s what I get to do.”
Your background and how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Born in Montreal, Quebec — where his family lived after immigrating from India — Chakrabarty grew up in Queens, New York.
“Not the kind of place you would expect for someone who loves nature,” Chakrabarty said. “I think I went fishing once in some dirty pond catching sunfish.”
He encountered the natural world by visiting the Bronx Zoo and museums. At McGill University in Montreal, he studied zoology and interned at his favorite childhood museum, the American Museum of Natural History. An influential ichthyologist there turned him on to the study of fish, which became his focus in graduate work at the University of Michigan.
What interested him was the way fish could teach about the history of the earth. For example, one family of fish, cichlids, lived in freshwater on different continents. Their distribution showed how continental drift worked.
What was your area of research?
His main field of study, systematic ichthyology, studies fish to see what they can teach about ancient geological events and evolution.
In the course of his research, Chakrabarty’s team often finds fish that look like nothing else or that don’t fit into a pre-existing identification. Nearly every year, Chakrabarty helps discover and describe a new species.
Shortly after starting work at LSU in 2008, Chakrabarty discovered a new species 30 miles off the Louisiana coast. A colleague from his post-doctoral stint at the American Museum of Natural History had suspected that the pancake batfish might not be just one species of fish. Chakrabarty caught a few of these “horrendous-looking creatures” and found that there were actually three distinct species.
“I think the Gulf of Mexico is one of the most unexplored places in the world,” he said. “You wouldn’t think that, but it’s 7,000 feet deep and there’s new habitats we haven’t explored.”
What do you love about your career?
To find other new species, Chakrabarty has dived into caves all over the world to study fish from Mexico to Indiana. Diving into the murky waters of a Madagascar sinkhole left him and his colleagues incredibly ill, and they named the fish found there typhleotris mararybe, which means “big sickness” in the Malagasy language.
The risk of danger and disease doesn’t deter Chakrabarty from his regular expeditions.
“That’s part of the adventure of it, too,” he said. “The 17th- and 18th-century explorers, they really had no idea what was around the corner. We’re better off, but there are still wild places out there.”
His stories of adventure and discovery pair well with his natural gift of speaking and teaching. Chakrabarty loves to talk science with everyone from young children to college students. Science needs more communicators who can translate their work to the public, he said.
He hopes to turn kids onto science and encourage students to study what interests them instead of thinking only about money.
“All that stuff comes later, and they should really be focusing on doing what they love,” he said.
This summer, Chakrabarty moved with his wife and twin 5-year-old daughters to work as a program director at the National Science Foundation outside of Washington, D.C.
For a year, his life will be a little less adventurous, with more office work than cave diving. But next year, he will return to LSU and the research he has made his life’s work.
“It’s been really a fun career,” Chakrabarty said, “and I want to continue that until I can’t anymore.”