Prof Plans on Waving LSU Flag During Canadian Fulbright

Prosanta Chakrabarty, an ichthyologist and curator of fishes at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and a professor in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences, is taking his first sabbatical in Ottawa, Canada for part of the next academic year as the Fulbright Canada Distinguished Chair in Environmental Science at Carleton University. We check in with him to ask a few (mostly informal) questions.



Prosanta Chakrabarty

Prosanta Chakrabarty’s Zoom background is from the aquarium in Okinawa, Japan, which is one of only two aquariums in the world with whale sharks. “I swam with these guys in Australia. They’re so cool.”


First, congratulations on the Fulbright and also on having just been promoted to full professor! What are you looking forward to the most?
Thanks! I can’t wait to experience living in a new country with my kids and working with people I haven’t even met yet. It’s a good time for me to get away and learn new things before I forget everything, and before they put me on all of these committees you get added to when you become a full professor! [laughs]
Is there anything you’ll miss?
Of course! We have a huge department, but we have no jerks, which is very unusual for a department of this size. It’s a fun club; we love each other, and the museum is just so fantastic. I will miss hanging out with my colleagues at LSU.
Why Canada?
My family and I like Canada; it’s a special place for us. We travel to Quebec for Christmas almost every year—my wife is from there and we met when I was an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal [about two hours’ drive from Ottawa]. Our almost nine-year-old twin girls are looking forward to snow and ice-skating and seeing family. Carleton also has a great research program and I’ll be collaborating with faculty there and at the University of Ottawa and the Canadian Museum of Nature, which is very good. I already know some people there, and I hear you can ice-skate to work on the Ottawa River. I’m picturing me and Justin Trudeau skating down the river together.
What will you be doing up there, exactly?
I’m a systematist. I figure out who is related to whom on the tree of life. But I’ll be doing something pretty different up there. The project I’ll be working on is called “Creating New Tools for the New Century of Fish Biology” and includes ways to better understand and document the impact of environmental change on fishes.
Being a “Distinguished Chair” makes it sound like I’m doing something administrative, but it’s not at all, thankfully; I will have lots of flexibility. I look forward to meeting new students and seeing what exciting new things people are thinking about. I want to get back into the water and the dirt both literally and figuratively; I want to be like a student again.
Is this your first time away from LSU in the 12 years you’ve been here?
No. I took leave in 2016-2017 to work at the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC. As we’re thinking about health insurance and enrolling our kids in a new school, I’m glad we had a little bit of practice four years ago. However, that was a separate job where I learned how the sausage is made and given out as grants. This sabbatical is more of a scientific learning experience.
What lesson did you learn then?
Don’t buy so much stuff! Really, don’t buy anything—and throw out everything! But seriously, learning how the NSF works has been extremely helpful for my career and I like that understanding how that system works also benefits my scientific colleagues.
Has the current COVID-19 pandemic changed your plans in any way?
Yes, much is in flux. The official Fulbright dates will likely be shortened as it has for so many already. For now, we still plan on starting this September, and enroll the kids in school. But the US-Canada border could remain closed.
Things have changed quite quickly.
Yes! My lab normally goes on two to four international trips each year, it seems impossible to get back to that anytime soon. I mean, this January, we were in Thailand. Actually, we didn’t come back until February 1! It seems so long ago but it was just a couple months ago. And we were in Haiti this past summer. It feels almost impossible now to think of how easily we were able to travel.
Has it changed your perspective on research?
I think it’s done that for a lot of people. For me, it’s a totally new perspective on life on Earth. Working on a shallow scale instead of deep time; more immediate. We see how connected we all are as the virus is going from country to country and person to person very quickly. It’s got all of us thinking about how small the world is. I’m especially thinking about the environment and how the world is changing for aquatic organisms.
Has it given you a new perspective on your work at LSU?
I appreciate that we get to train people from different countries and backgrounds and not just privileged students. I have graduate students from Guatemala, Texas, and Cuba, and I love that you can have that kind of mix at LSU; it isn’t true everywhere. There is real diversity among the undergraduates. We still need to do better, but we are working at it more forcefully than a lot of places. I’ve also definitely felt like the most spoiled professor at LSU, but I also really love it here and want to be a promoter of this institution. I hope to continue that while I’m away in Canada. I’ll be on the tundra, holding the flag for this great place on the bayou. Not quite tundra, of course, but it will be quite cold.
Finally, tell me about a cool connection between Canada and Louisiana.
Do you know about Iberville? Iberville [the founder of Louisiana as a French colony] was from Montreal, and the reason Cat Island in Louisiana is called Cat Island is because Iberville thought racoons were cats.


LSU College of Science/Department of Biological Sciences announcement: Chakrabarty Receives Fulbright



Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development