When I meet new people and mention that I work with invasive spiders and their behaviors, I am often asked, “Why spiders?”, which is a fair question. The full story of how I found myself moving from California to Tennessee to start my PhD studies focusing on the behavior of colonial spiders is somewhat long. The gist is that in a span of a year in college, I went from being an intensely arachnophobic entomophile (is that even a word?) to an enthusiastic, budding arachnologist through a transformative course at Berkeley on spider biology, which says a lot about the importance of pedagogy. Somehow Star Trek and musings about extraterrestrial life figure into this equation, but some things are too nerdy to go into detail about.
It turns out that learning about the unknown can undo a lot of fear. By gradually learning more about the creatures I had longed hated, I instead began to love and admire them (reminiscent of Ender Wiggin, anyone?). What surprised me the most about spiders were their behaviors, many of which seem alien and taboo to human cultures (Cannibalism? Matriphagy? Auto-castration? Cool!). Having an incredibly enthusiastic spider professor was also crucial, so hats off to all great instructors out there– you really make a difference!
Since this undergraduate course in spider biology, I have had the opportunity to work with spiders in a variety of countries (French Polynesia, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Netherland Antilles, St. Kitts and Nevis, Taiwan, Spain, South Africa) and contexts (biogeography, behavior). I am currently a graduate student of Dr. Susan Riechert at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I am interested in the role of behavior and temperament in the success of biological invasions, using the colonial tentweb orbweaver (Cyrtophora citricola) as a study organism.
Outside of academics, I enjoy couchsurfing, traveling, and playing board games. I will also discuss food (where to find uni in Knoxville?!), the recent entomophagy movement (I approve), and Harry Potter (Hagrid apparently didn’t consider the ecological implications of releasing non-native acromantulas in the Forbidden Forest) at length. I’m also your dude if you want to discuss board games with biologically relevant themes and mechanics or if you want to playtest a reimagined version of Settlers of Catan involving conflict with a resistant indigenous group.
I am very grateful to the following funding sources that have provided support to me throughout my PhD dissertation work: