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From the Spring 2018 Edition of Discovery

A Bird’s-Eye View

Biochemistry alum Sudipta Shaw ‘17 PhD, captures his love of wildlife with photography

USU alum Sudipta Shaw at Benson Marina in Cache Valley, Utah, in 2015.

USU alum Sudipta Shaw at Benson Marina in Cache Valley, Utah, in 2015.

Photo courtesy Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal

Sometimes, timing is everything. Had the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) contacted Utah State University alum Sudipta Shaw (Biochemistry, PhD’17) just a little sooner, he might be following his passion for wildlife photography as a vocation rather than an avocation.

But Shaw has no regrets. The Kolkata native chose an earlier offer with India’s Institute of Microbiological Technology, which ultimately launched him to an academic career in the biological sciences.

“I love my work in biochemistry and microbiology,” says Shaw, currently a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences, Biotechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “And I still have time to pursue my passion for wildlife photography.”

Shaw’s fascination with wildlife began early, even earlier than his memory.

“My mother and aunt tell stories of me, as a preschooler, trying to grab small fish from an ornamental pond,” he says. “I don’t remember this, but I’ve always noticed birds and other wildlife. I can watch them for hours.”

Shaw’s first foray into transferring his love of nature into art came during his undergraduate studies at Allahabad Agricultural Institute. He and a roommate decided to enter a nationwide Wildlife Institute of India contest for college students that called for poster illustrations.

Shaw, right, with USU faculty mentor Lance Seefeldt in 2016

Shaw, right, with USU faculty mentor Lance Seefeldt in 2016

Photo courtesy Mary-Ann Muffoletto

“I’m not good at drawing, so my poster consisted of pasted clips of facts and photos about animals and birds – not the way you are supposed to do a poster,” he recalls. “There were no surprises when I didn’t win. On the other hand, my roommate, a very talented illustrator, took third prize.”

A short time later, Shaw made a couple of casual purchases, two wildlife photography magazines, while waiting to take a train home for a holiday break.

Northern Hawk Owl at Minnesota’s Sax Zim Bog.

Northern Hawk Owl at Minnesota’s Sax Zim Bog

Photo courtesy Sudipta Shaw

“It was a 12-hour train ride, but I didn’t sleep,” he says. “I couldn’t stop looking at those photographs and I read those magazines from cover to cover.”

Photography, it turns out, was the vehicle Shaw would pursue to capture his love of wildlife.

“From then on, I read all I could about photography and began experimenting with an analog camera,” he says. “After moving to the United States for graduate school, I purchased my first digital camera.”

Shaw regularly posts photos to Your Shot, National Geographic’s photo community, and maintains his own photography website, and Flickr page, as well. In 2017, one of his images of Yellowstone bison was selected from more than 10,000 submissions for National Geographic’s “21 Captivating Pictures of Places Worth Protection.”

During his years at Utah State, where he studied nitrogenase with Professor Lance Seefeldt, he earned an award for another Yellowstone bison photo he submitted to The Herald Journal newspaper’s “Great Outdoors Photo Contest.”

But birds of prey are his favorite subject and he found plenty of osprey, harrier, peregrine falcons and American kestrels during his treks to Cache Valley’s Benson Marina and Brigham City’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. In Minnesota, his current focus is owls, which he describes with excitement.

Grizzly cub, Yellowstone National Park

Grizzly cub, Yellowstone National Park

Photo courtesy Sudipta Shaw

“On weekends, I’ll head north to Sax Zim Bog, a popular birding area, which is famous for Great Gray Owls,” Shaw says. “I’ve also captured photos of the less abundant Northern Hawk Owl.”

Closer to home, he’s observed snowy owls at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.

At UMN, Shaw is investigating the ability of bacterial, phosphate-binding proteins to discriminate between phosphate and arsenate at the molecular level.

“The phosphorus cycle differs from other major biogeochemical cycles in that it doesn’t include a gas phase or, at least, it’s very rare,” he says. “Phosphate is necessary for life but, applied in fertilizers, it binds to soil particles that leach into surface waters and stimulate the growth of algae. This causes a process called eutrophication, which removes oxygen from the water and harms fish and other organisms.”

Shaw is working to develop genetically modified bacteria with enhanced phosphate-capture ability that will be used to design a cost-effective bioscavenger for removing phosphorous from aquaculture effluents, agricultural runoff and waste water.

“Such a bioreactor can be used as a water filtration system, which will concentrate phosphate, enabling the recycling of this precious fertilizer in agriculture,” he says.

Where Shaw’s career will take him remains unknown, but wherever he lands, the scholar, named the 2016 Thomas F. Emery Outstanding Graduate Student in Biochemistry at USU, will regularly escape to the wild to pursue his passion.

Coyote, Yellowstone National Park

Coyote, Yellowstone National Park

Photo courtesy Sudipta Shaw

“Bird photography, my favorite, is more challenging than animal photography,” Shaw says. “You can’t take a picture of a bird without sitting for, maybe hours. You have to be extremely lucky to capture a good photo of a bird in flight.”

Timing is, after all, everything.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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