How One Entomologist Avoided Elephants and Bears to Develop a Multidisciplinary Approach to Bee Protection
By Scott O’Neal, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University (OSU) and president of the OSU Postdoctoral Association. Originally from India, she earned her Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Calcutta, where she studied the effects of pesticides on wild Indian honey bees. As a result of her outstanding work, she is the recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Early Career Award by the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America. Below, we asked Chakrabarti Basu a few questions about her research and postdoc life.
O’Neal: How would you describe your research program?
Chakrabarti Basu: The main goal of my research is to understand the various threats affecting bee pollinators and how best to counteract them. I study the physiological impacts of pesticides, poor nutrition, and diseases in bees, both in the field and in the lab. For each problem that is thrown at me, my research program holistically looks at it and finds ways to solve it. Along with contributing to basic sciences, I also want to be able to benefit our various stakeholders with my research findings. Throughout the years, I have collaborated with researchers, academicians, beekeepers, growers, and other non-profit and governmental agencies to help protect bee pollinators. I believe this partnership is one of the key foundations of what I do.
What makes your research program unique or sets you apart from your peers?
I am an insect physiologist working on insect nutrition, ecotoxicology, molecular ecology, insect functional biology, and insect neuroethology, with a special focus on bee pollinators. I employ multi-omics, molecular biology, and various other tools from the fields of apiculture, pollination biology, and insect physiology to address my research questions. This transdisciplinary aspect makes my research program unique.
Most importantly, one of my primary aims is to be able to translate the findings of my basic research to an applied perspective for helping our stakeholders. Crop protection and bee protection are not mutually exclusive, but it requires someone with diverse expertise and strong communication skills to bridge that gap. Consequently, I am augmenting my research program by also trying to build the first database of plant pollen nutrition in North America for both managed and native bee pollinators. Having worked across many states in India and in the UK, my diverse multicultural background also helps me to connect more easily with students and with various members of the community in the United States.
After moving to the United States from India, my postdoc mentor Dr. Ramesh Sagili and my lab mates have been incredible in providing opportunities to improve both my professional and personal growth. This has further broadened my horizon in building a research program that is multidisciplinary, unique, and highly collaborative. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding a great collaborator—a partner who is as enthusiastic about your project as you are. At OSU, I am very lucky to have found Jeffrey Morré, who has been phenomenal in helping us to build methods for assessing pollen nutritional quality. My group of collaborators also spans across North America, Europe and Asia, and this provides me with an added opportunity to pursue novel avenues of research.
What is the most interesting research challenge that you have encountered, and what was your approach to solving it?
I think the most interesting challenge was to learn how to work with humans, rather than with bees. What I have come to realize is that it is all about establishing trust. Some of the larger participatory research programs that I was involved with during my Ph.D. in India required working in close cooperation with various stakeholders and marginalized sections of the community. Sampling events, surveys, fieldwork: everything was dependent on building a strong relationship with our partners, who were often spread across remote villages. Part of my success came from having the opportunity to work with a superb team, but equally as important was having an open mind, a willingness to learn, and the ability to adapt and to be kind. These things are what helped me to overcome all challenges and really feel like my work made a difference.
Another thing I must mention, however, is that we often fail to appreciate the challenges that our field sites can throw at us. At some of my Ph.D. field sites, I had to watch out for elephants and bears. In another site, there were tigers in the adjoining forests. In addition to the dangers posed by these large mammals, I was working with Apis dorsata, the giant honey bee, which builds these massive hives usually way beyond our reach. At one field-sampling event gone wrong, they stung me over 50 times! Talk about a lesson learned! Despite all of that, I restocked my first aid kit and was back to sampling the next day with a renewed enthusiasm.
Your research has been pretty exciting! Has your career been primarily focused on research?
I am also passionate about teaching and mentoring. I taught and mentored students in India and I continue to do so here at OSU. As the current President of the OSU Postdoctoral Association, I make every effort to provide mentoring opportunities to graduate students and build links between OSU postdocs and graduate students. I also regularly train and mentor students in our lab. In fact, my door is literally always open for students to walk in with their questions or problems.
COVID-19 has reshaped our teaching methods, and being an instructor for an online course at OSU this fall, I am no exception. A number of our students are studying remotely, and some of them reached out to me with their concerns about delayed textbook arrival. I agreed to scan the entire textbook for them, and the sheer joy evident in their emails was quite rewarding. Luckily, the kind folks at the OSU Valley Library did it for us, and the students now have access to it. I teach, train, and mentor graduate and undergraduate students, as I truly believe that it is important to develop scientific temper and support our next generation of entomologists, researchers and independent thinkers. In appreciation of the amazing postdoc mentor that I have at OSU, I also encourage others to be great mentors themselves.
Why did you become an entomologist? What drew you to this field?
Insects have always fascinated me. As a child, I would spend hours in my grandmother’s terrace garden, looking at bugs and wondering what are they up to on a hot summer afternoon! I have to admit, as a result of growing up in the tropics, I prefer some bugs over the others. Earning my degree in zoology gave me an overview of animal systems and the diversity that is around us. This further solidified my passion in entomology, especially learning how unique and diverse insects are.
I started studying bees during my Ph.D. and I have not looked back ever since. News about colony collapse disorder and bee declines had already reached India when I was studying in college. However, not much was really understood about bees and their troubles in the Asian subcontinent. My Ph.D. research was thus motivated by the largely overlooked question of how field-realistic pesticide exposures can affect both wild and managed honey bees. Slowly, over the years, I have expanded into researching the other stressors that affect our bees as well.
OK, so now I really want to know: Which bugs do you prefer, and why?
Of course I will choose bees! I love working with bees and I really appreciate all that bees do for us. But there are close runners-up: firefly and praying mantis. I find fireflies to be so unique, lighting up our world! I think we can all do our little bits to light up the world. And, of course, the praying mantis because it can rotate its head, unlike other insects, has great vision, and what a formidable predator!
Thank you Priya! For all of our readers, you can learn more about Dr. Chakrabarti Basu’s research at: www.priyadarshinichakrabarti.com and https://honeybeelab.oregonstate.edu/users/priyadarshini-chakrabarti-basu.
Scott O’Neal, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at Corteva Agriscience and the 2019-2020 chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos courtesy of Priyadarshini Chakrabarti Basu, Ph.D.