Chandranath Basak pictured in front of some water

New faculty profile: Chandranath Basak

January 12, 2021 Written by Adam Thomas | Photo by Chandranath Basak

Could you give some background information about yourself?

I came to the United States from India in 2004 as a graduate student. I did a master’s at Indiana State University and my Ph.D. at the University of Florida. My primary Ph.D. research focus was to look at climate change, specifically how Antarctica became glaciated. Antarctica was green at some point and then, around 33 million years ago, ice started forming. My research was to find out as that ice formed, how the weathering happened, how the climate changed, what triggered that and then what followed due to that glaciation.

Because I was dealing with ocean chemistry that happened millions of years ago, I also got interested in what’s happening today. You can only tell about the past when you understand the present. Around that time, an international research program called Geotraces for examining the chemistry of the ocean was in its early stage.

As a research group, we participated in Geotraces and that project opened the floodgate of research ideas for me. I could see a whole new field around me that I wasn’t familiar with. I met a group of chemical oceanographers through this program; one of them had just accepted a faculty position in Germany. She asked me if I would relocate to Germany and work as a scientist there. So, I moved in 2011 and started working at the Max Planck Institute as a post-doctoral fellow.

During that time, I got more into the field of chemical oceanography. I started working with sea water samples to examine how the oceans behave with respect to different chemical systems and applying that knowledge to interpret what happened thousands of years ago and study climate change.

I was at Max Planck until 2013 and then I started as a post-doctoral fellow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. I was at Columbia for three and a half years, first as a post-doc and then as an associate research scientist. Then in 2017, I started at California State University as a tenure-track assistant professor. I left after two years to join UD in 2019 as a research assistant professor.

What will you be researching at UD?

Between fall 2018 and fall 2019, I have been out in the sea for four months collecting seawater and ocean sediments. Using these samples, I plan to study a series of elements which are called rare earth elements.

Traditionally, dissolved rare earths occur at a very low concentration in the modern ocean. Over the last decade we have seen an explosive rise in electronics and as a result electronic waste. For example, we use cell phones where rare earth elements are used to make various components. It is highly likely that a lot of these rare earth elements will find its way into the ocean. Ongoing changes in ocean conditions, such as acidification and decreasing dissolved oxygen, will facilitate some of these rare earths to remain in dissolved state. So, it is timely to construct a baseline for rare earth concentration globally so that in the future, when it changes, we can compare it with the baseline. Rare Earth Elements are not as frequently measured in the ocean so there’s a knowledge gap. Some of my efforts go towards collecting these samples from remote places in the world and then I analyze those to create a picture of the distributions. I also measure isotopic ratios of some of the rare earths.

Another part of my research involves investigating the role of deep ocean in controlling past climate change events. To determine how the climate is going to change and affect us, we heavily depend on climate models. The type of paleoclimate studies we do in our research group provide the climate modelers with the background information needed to build, refine, and calibrate the models. I sailed as a shipboard scientist in the recently concluded International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) expedition 383 investigating the “Dynamics of Pacific Antarctic Circumpolar Current (DYNAPACC)”. Using samples from that expedition we are currently generating neodymium isotope data to reconstruct past changes in deep ocean circulation and its relation to climate change. Due to the pandemic our progress has been a bit slow in 2020, but we are expecting to have our first set of results by early summer in 2021.

How’d you get interested in oceanography?

Right after high school, I wanted to study chemistry. The college that I wanted to attend in India as an undergrad was one of the best colleges in the country. Their chemistry department was only accepting a certain number of majors at that time and I didn’t make it. But I was very interested in chemistry so I talked to a few professors and they said there were other ways to still do chemistry. One was to go for a geology major so that’s how I got into geology.

Since my focus was always to do chemistry, I gravitated towards geochemistry. During my Master’s I got involved in a project where I measured carbon and oxygen isotopes in live foraminifera. These foraminifera are single cell organisms, generally made up of calcium carbonate, and are frequently found in ocean bottom sediment. These organisms are very good at recording the isotope signal of the surrounding water in which they are growing and can tell us about the environmental condition at the time of their growth. As I was reading stable isotope literature, I found out about all these other cool isotopes which are called non-traditional isotopes and how these isotopic systems can be used to study modern and past oceans. So, when I was looking for a suitable Ph.D. program, I actively applied to the research groups which were studying present and past oceans and climate using non-traditional isotopes.

What is the difference between traditional and non-stable isotopes?

In the world of isotope geochemistry, measurements of isotopes of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, have been around for a while. These are called traditional isotopes. The heavier elements, which are not as frequently measured, are called non-traditional isotopes. Although I have to agree that over the last decade, more and more research groups have started to measure non-traditional isotopes mainly because we are realizing how extremely important and useful these isotopes can be to answer a plethora of research questions.

What are you most looking forward to at UD?

I am looking forward to building an inclusive research group where we wish to explore new isotopic tools to push the frontiers of isotope geochemistry in answering critical environmental questions.

The University has a strong research program related to climate, oceans, and the environment. There are multiple researchers who do excellent work using traditional isotopes but up until now, there isn’t anybody who is actively doing climate-related research using non-traditional isotopes. With recent hires we are gradually forming a critical mass where a strong research program can be built using non-traditional isotopes. These non-traditional isotopes are extremely powerful and can not only augment the existing research endeavors but can also support new cross-disciplinary research in the field of public health, and biomedical sciences.  Along with another new faculty and few senior colleagues, we are trying to acquire funding to purchase the instruments that are needed to do this kind of analysis. However, I would want to set up not just this one instrument, but a shared isotope facility where faculty members across the campus could use it.

Do you have any interesting hobbies outside of work?

I like cooking that I use as a stress buster. 

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