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Rituparna Bose

September 26, 2012

When the United Nations declared 2011-20 the “U.N. Decade of Biodiversity,” Rituparna Bose knew she could make a significant research contribution to the field.

Bose conducts research that helps to shed light on the biodiversity, evolution, and ecology of extinct organisms, work will help future earth scientists understand the natural and human causes behind biodiversity crisis and ecosystem collapse. Her work is done in collaboration with the Yale Peabody Museum, Smithsonian National Museum, and American Museum of Natural History and is funded by a Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Grant, awarded by American Museum of Natural History, and a Dunbar-Schuchert Grant, awarded by Yale University.

A recent doctoral student in the Department of Geological Sciences in IU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Bose hopes her work can “contribute to an understanding of the reasons behind loss of biodiversity and as a starting point for conservation.” Bose is currently an adjunct faculty in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the Department of Biological Sciences and Geology at the City University of New York.

There are between 5 million and 30 million species of plants and animals today. One reason for such ambiguity in the numbers, Bose says, is that organisms have been historically classified based on visual assessment — in other words, organisms that look different from one another are grouped differently. Organisms are morphologically complex, and one of the difficulties for studying the history of biodiversity in the past, including extinction, is measuring the subtle differences between species, which is important in cases where there are no available genetic or behavioral data.

During her research with David Polly, associate professor of geological sciences at IU, Bose worked to develop techniques for measuring the complex shape of organisms that can be used to help identify species in deep time.

“One of the greatest challenges in biodiversity, especially the Earth’s past diversity as represented in the fossil record, is correctly identifying species and measuring their adaptive responses to changing environments,” Polly says. “Ritu has used ‘geometric morphometrics’ — a relatively new method for measuring the shape of organisms — to study the very subtle differences between species and to better understand how they changed with time.”

Bose’s research has been published in paleontology journals including Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology and Historical Biology. Her dissertation was published in Springer’s “best of the best theses” series. Bose serves on the editorial board of several scholarly journals including Historical Biology, Bulletins of American Paleontology, and Geological Journal. She has also been invited to serve as an editor for Acta Palaeontogica Sinica (Chinese Academy of Sciences).

Toward the later stages of this biodiversity research, she worked closely with her microbiologist husband, Arnab De (also an IU graduate (M.S. in chemistry, 2007), from Columbia University to understand the implications of these findings.

“We have used quantitative methods to study species diversity and evolution,” De says. “Our work can immensely improve biological classification in situations where it must be based on morphology alone.” It is possible, he says, that a modification of the existing classification system is necessary. At IU, De’s work resulted in two patents (licensed by Marcadia Biotech, recently acquired by Roche) and he also received the Young Investigator’s Award at the American Peptide Symposium 2009. He recently wrote a book with Springer.

Bose hopes that her research, rooted in her passion for math and statistics and informed by her training as a geologist and paleobiologist, can help researchers across the globe. “It will most assuredly disseminate immense knowledge in this field worldwide,” she says.