When Assistant Professor Chris Kenaley looks at the human body, he sees a collection of fish parts.
Students who have taken a class with Kenaley are well aware of his fascination with the ancestral origins of the mammalian form, in some cases to their disappointment. But what he hopes to impress upon each of his students is that nothing can better inform their understanding of the human body than study of its evolutionary roots. As it turns out, he promotes a similar approach in all aspects of life, especially when it comes to selecting the right career path.
As is to be expected of a man who once rowed competitively, Kenaley cannot pass up a challenge. His career in studying deep sea fishes has been highly motivated by the many obstacles complicating such research. Indeed, how do we study organisms that are highly evolved for such a unique environment? The deep sea is sparse, cold, pressurized, and devoid of light. The organisms that live there are few and far between; many species of deep sea fishes have been seen just a handful of times and many more remain unidentified. Deep sea fishes are fragile, typically unable to survive pressure changes or even capture in a net. It simply is not possible to transplant them into a controlled lab environment for in depth study. Of course, observing them in their natural habitat is no easy task either. While this sounds like a laundry list of reasons not to study the deep sea, it is in fact a synopsis of why Professor Kenaley chose the field.
Having a known interest in ecology and imagining a future in conservation, Kenaley did some field work with deep sea fishes and was attracted to the challenge. So little was known about their morphology, behavior, and evolutionary history. The possibility of identifying new species, learning more about rare species, and developing new techniques to analyze their morphology was attractive to Kenaley. He wondered how the unusual traits of these organisms conveyed fitness and optimization of swimming, locomotion, and feeding in a unique environment. It was for these reasons that he became focused on taxonomy and evolutionary morphology of deep sea fishes.
The reality of studying deep sea fishes is as complicated as it sounds, but as alluded to, this is yet another reason Kenaley was attracted to the field. He describes himself as someone who prefers to work with his hands. This too may be evident to his students, who crane their necks to keep up with his erratic pacing and wild gesticulations during lecture— a testament to his passion for the subject matter. It is no surprise that Professor Kenaley has always been suited for fieldwork; truly one cannot imagine him trapped in a desk job. Kenaley has done field work in diverse regions of the globe and studied a variety of deep sea adaptations. Areas of his focus have included enhanced visual perception via photophore adaptation and biomechanical adaptations as they pertain to strategies of locomotion and feeding.
In the lab, Kenaley has developed other means of studying these fishes. As someone who likes to build things, he finds the process of creating physical “biorobotic” and computer models to analyze locomotion and feeding to be stimulating.
These research techniques have facilitated his achievements in advancing the taxonomy of deep sea fishes and understanding the ecology of these once alien creatures.
While Professor Kenaley has accomplished a great deal in his field, his best piece of wisdom is not what you might expect: simply relax. While Kenaley’s passion for his work suggests that he would have always planned to follow this path, that was not the case. He even took time off between his undergraduate and doctoral studies to row, an experience he describes as reinvigorating. Taking his time through his PhD program facilitated his personal growth and learning. This, perhaps, is the reason his work since has been so rewarding and exciting. Most of all, Professor Kenaley suggests that there is nothing more important than to seek mentorship and explore new experiences. He knows better than some that, as he put it, “happenstance can engender success.” His initial field work experience came about as a consequence of mere curiosity, and proved to be a guiding light in his career since.
Discovering oneself should mimic the evolutionary process, as it has for Professor Chris Kenaley. Just as the fundamental roots of human evolution in ancient fishes elucidate the traits that define human form and function, the single events, adaptive or maladaptive, in one’s life dictate the person one becomes. How will you evolve?