About me:

Debo Chakraborty 3Broadly, I am interested in understanding how infectious diseases emerge, spread and persist in populations. Consequently, I study ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. Eventually, I want to translate my understanding into tangible practices in managing infectious diseases. Among many infectious diseases, my interest lies with those at the human – animal interface, alternatively known as zoonotic diseases, as I find these diseases to be considerably understudied in spite of being caused by almost 60% of all human parasites. Furthermore, parasites that cause up to 75% of emerging diseases in humans also zoonotic in origin. Unlike other infectious diseases, zoonoses often involve interactions between multiple hosts, parasites, sometimes vectors and across different scales of biological organisation making them difficult to study in the wild. To make the situation further complicated, human-driven rapid modification of land use, increased global connectivity and ongoing climate change are perturbing the structure and function of these inherently complex systems with outcomes that are understood quite poorly. I intend to study the effects of such disruptions on host-parasite communities. Such changes have been argued to give rise to emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases in wildlife and in man, serious threat to both wildlife conservation and global health. Therefore, It is important to understand how associations between hosts and parasites are influenced if there is a large-scale change in host community structure, perhaps, through biodiversity loss. Can such changes induce spill-over of parasites from one host to another? What are the factors that may govern such changes?

As a primatologist, I am also interested to know how adaptation to parasites may have shaped the evolution in primate societies. Living in a group provides animals with many benefits including security, resource availability and cooperative breeding. Group living, however, increases the risk of directly transmitted parasite transmission among the members of a social group. Thus there must be a trade-off between different properties of a social group in their capacity to increase disease risk. Till now, group size has been considered as an important parameter influencing disease risk in social groups. However, recent work in the field, hints at a more complex pattern of parasite transmission involving social structure. The broad objective, I am pursuing currently address the connection between group size, social structure and their relation to parasite spread in social primates.

Arunachal Macaque Photo: MD Madhusudan

Arunachal Macaque
Photo: MD Madhusudan

Before extending my interests into the community ecology of hosts and parasites, I studied populations of macaques for my PhD. I investigated factors which can potentially shape population genetic structure and demographic histories of two macaque species, namely the Arunachal macaque Macaca munzala, a habitat specialist species from north-eastern India, and the bonnet macaque M. radiata, a habitat generalist which is endemic to peninsular India.

Bonnet Macaque Photo S Gupta

Bonnet Macaque
Photo S Gupta

Overall, our work indicated that both large-scale extrinsic factors such as climate change and intrinsic factors such as sex-biased dispersal interact at different levels of organisation to drive population dynamics in social primates. Here, I combined molecular genetics and model-based statistical analyses to address ecological and evolutionary questions at the population level.

I did my masters and bachelors both in Zoology. During my masters, I investigated the seasonal change in zooplankton community in a fresh water lake and its connection to the frequency migratory waterfowl communities that visit the lake. We found that gradual increase in the waterfowls does indeed cause a shift of a more heterogeneous zooplankton community to a more homogenous one.

I am also interested in the more “esoteric” ideas such as the psychology of expectation, or more precisely the science of music cognition. Musical expectations can be manipulated to elicit different emotions in the audience, it is also more distinct than most other everyday instances of expectations such as visual arts and finally, detailed structure of scores are well studied to be used as stimuli in experiments. Overall, music, perhaps, is more holistic and ecologically valid stimulus than stimuli that are generally used in experimental studies in human expectations. In spite of such experimental advantages, music cognition is still largely overlooked and underrated in scientific communities as more philosophical than scientific. I like to think about and discuss these issues, particularly when I am moved by any piece of wonderful music.

My other non-academic interests involve films and food. I love to watch and debate films and read, sometimes obsessively, trivia about them. I like to cook and experiment with food. Food has always been an important part of my exploration of cultures that I have had the benefit of visiting.

I grew up in Kolkata (earlier Calcutta) – the city of joy – an old, crowded and sultry metropolitan in the eastern part of India. Internationally, Kolkata is often associated with Mother Teresa (and, in turn, poverty) and nationally, that of with sweets and rich cultural heritage. I got both my bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in zoology from University of Calcutta. Later, I have stayed in the beautiful city of Bangalore between November, 2005 and June, 2013, where I received my PhD. During October, 2013 and September, 2014, I spend my time between the town of Valparai, my field site in the beautiful Anaimalai hills of Western ghats and the historic city of Hyderabad in the Deccan India, famous for its Islamic culture, Mughalai cuisine and unbearably hot summer. I am currently based in the wonderful city of Durham, North Carolina, home to Duke University and North Carolina Central University and a part of the famous Research Triangle of the United States.