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Cameron Pollack

February 24, 2016

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Cornell Ecologist Linda Rayor Discovers Passion Studying Spiders

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“Never in my wildest dreams did I envision myself with a couple thousand spiders in my lab,” said senior lecturer Dr. Linda Rayor, entomology.

As a behavioral ecologist, Rayor focuses on the interactions of group-living animals — currently spiders — and teaches an array of classes ranging from insect behavior to scientific outreach.

Rayor said she decided to become a scientist at a very young age, but never foresaw a future working with insects and arachnids.

As a child, Rayor said she remembers frequenting the Denver Zoo in Colorado, which she said helped kindle her interest in science, natural investigation and animals. Despite this, she said she chose to pursue molecular biology as an undergraduate at University of Colorado Boulder.

“Even though it was clear that I was interested in animal behavior and taking animal behavior-type classes, I thought I’d have a better chance at getting a job in molecular biology,” Rayor said.

One summer when she was in college, Rayor said she participated in a program where she helped research the maternal behavior of two different primate species. Finding herself fascinated by the in-depth interactions between the two animals, she said she realized that her major did not match her interests.

“The truth is, I’m not a lab biologist,” she said. “I didn’t particularly like doing work in the lab, and my idea of a fun time was being outside and watching things.”

Rayor said she discovered what she loved after working in a different setting.

“After one summer of doing animal behavior, it was clear that I would be crazy if I had done anything else,” Rayor continued. “This was clearly where my passion was, and I think we don’t say this enough — you come to college to find out what you’re passionate about.”

A primate study set the groundwork for many of Rayor’s later research in animal behavior — social interactions, group-living and mother-offspring dynamics, she said.

“I’m interested in social dynamics and how they are influenced by the habitat,” Rayor said. “I’m interested in why animals do what they do, but especially why they’re social, and what the costs and benefits of being in a group are.”

While obtaining her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas, Rayor said she became interested in spiders and routinely brought them back to the lab to study and show other graduate students.

Although most entomology students were not very enthusiastic about arachnids, Rayor said there was one other person who was just as passionate about spiders as she was. This man would eventually become her husband.

“Our first date was keying out spiders, and we ended up studying spiders together to see if we were scientifically compatible,” Rayor said.

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Rayor’s current research focuses on the social dynamics of the huntsman spider, which are native to Australia. She recalls catching them herself in order to study them in a laboratory setting.

“We’re pulling bark off of dead acacia trees and 60 big spiders would come running out,” she said. “I had to grab these fast spiders and put them in vials.”

In addition to conducting her research, Rayor said she has also won several teaching awards for her dedication to education, including the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Innovative Teacher Award and the Kaplan Family Distinguished Faculty in Service Learning Award. She also said she prioritizes scientific outreach and hopes to inspire interest in the natural sciences through talks and public events.

“My contribution to the future is training others in how to talk about science in ways that matter — that explain why science is important, why the environment matters and why we need to preserve it,” Rayor said.

Rayor said she teaches a naturalist outreach practicum in the fall for both undergraduate and graduate students that shows them how to communicate with the public. She also hosts “Monster Bug Wars” on the Discovery Channel and organizes the annual Insectapalooza insect fair at Cornell for the local community and insect enthusiasts worldwide.

Rayor recalled one Insectapalooza when a father and daughter travelled from Virginia to attend the event.

“I had a dad call me up, and say, ‘My daughter’s been interested in spiders since she was a little girl. She’s getting picked on because of it, so I think it would be really good for her if she could meet a woman scientist who studies spiders,’” Rayor said.

Rayor met with them and said she made sure Insectapalooza was memorable for her.

“Before Insectapalooza I showed her around the lab, and she talked to the different undergraduate students, and we sent her home with a baby tarantula,” Rayor said. “She met all of these college students [who were doing what she wanted to do,] so that it wasn’t all just abstract. For kids like her, something like Insectapalooza really matters.”

Rayor said she hopes there will be more and more scientists in future generations who will discover even more about the world. She advises scientists who are still seeking their calling to try new things out and pursue their passions.

“I don’t think anyone realizes what path they’re likely to take, or certainly, I didn’t,” she said. “Being a scientist and liking animals were givens [for me,] but the path to getting [to a place I was happy with] was awfully curly.”

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