Tuesday, October 25, 2011

UTSC’s Den of Horrors (well, not really)

Clowns, deranged killers, and all things monstrous… this Halloween most people will still choose spiders as the thing they are scared of most.

These creepy crawlies set most people’s teeth on edge, but did you know that a dedicated group of students are researching these eight-legged critters in our very school?

If you haven’t experienced it for yourself, I would highly suggest this absolutely free thrill-ride down in UTSC’s own basement. But be forewarned, the lowest floor of the S-wing houses an arachnophobic's worst nightmare. 

This week, I decided to brave my arachnophobia and enter into UTSC’s secret, scientific "den of horrors". Only to run back out screaming (okay, not really).

On hearing about it from a friend, I decided to steel myself and see what really goes on in the land of the white coats and microscopes.

As I walked down the stairs to the first floor of the S-wing, I felt like I was descending the steps towards my own doom. Spiders freak the you-know-what out of me. Actually anything with more than two legs, is a bit of a challenge. And my excursion to the bowels of school didn't leave me disappointed.

I visited Dr. Andrew Mason's research lab. His research hopes to understand the mechanism by which the nervous system controls ongoing activity and how these mechanisms relate to behavioural adaptation, to put it to layman's terms.

His research is similar to Dr. Maydianne Andrade and Dr. Fitzpatrick's research, they use invertebrate organisms such as jumping spiders, katydids, and black widow spiders. 

Yes, you read right... black widow spiders... and you thought midterm season was scary.  

 The lab with hundreds of spiders, including the black widows. We weren't allowed to go in there - not like I had a problem with that!

The lab I visited dealt mainly with orb weaver spiders. Undergraduate students use the spiders as part of their course BIOC99, Biology Team Research, but graduate students also use the lab for their research. Along with the research, they have to feed the spiders and collect the spiders. 

Student researcher Aly holds up the orb weaver web for inspection. These spiders make the beautiful, symmetrical webs we see in the summer.
Aly likes long walks on the beach, writing, and feeding and collecting spiders during his free time. 

Jimm'ney cricket and his family, ready to be fed to Aragog and his.

Some delicious spider chow. Om nom nom nom!
Fun fact: the students have found over 50 spiders from the green space near the AA building. they also collect at Harbourfront and in the Valley.  You might want to think twice about that nice walk down the Valley when it's crawling with ickle spideys!

So with my knees shaking, I entered into the lab and was immediately assaulted by both the smell and the sight. I was greeted by boxes, crates and incubators filled with eight-legged, eight-eyed bloodthirsty monsters (.... monsters that are .00001 times the size of me, but still!)

As I'm writing this, I keep wondering how I didn't pass out. I was twitching at every step during the tour because this is what I saw:

An Argiope aurantia spider, in it's container. 
Spiders a la carte!
Chillin' out, maxin', relaxin' all day: arachnid swag.

And if the sight of 100s of spiders isn't enough to make you dizzy, the 100 degree temperature in the lab might just do the trick. The researchers said the sweltering heat provides the spiders with optimal living conditions, but I had a sneaking suspicion it was to freak me out further.

The heat of hell combined with four times the normal amount of eyes and legs? It was a surprise I wasn't bolting out of there after a quick minute. Actually I came quite close when this happened:

Here I am holding a Madagascar beetle... Clearly I'm enjoying it.
But okay, all joking aside, the research is pretty cool! Professor Mason and his team are doing some really interesting things that could have a big impact on our understanding of our lives.

But more than the research itself, what's most interesting is that the lab I visited is only one of many! In fact, there are many other labs down in the dungeons (I say that lovingly and for the sake of alliteration), and that's not even counting the ones placed all around the other campus buildings. Going into the lab really showed me a different side, a cooler side, to research. It's definitely more than just books and memorization.  

The student researchers at Dr. Mason's lab are glad to have gotten the opportunity to do the research because it gives students a way to experience science in a really unique way. Instead of reading about it, you're actually doing it!
I didn’t get a chance to feed the tarantula Skittles. He was feeling a little shy. I wonder if it was all the shrieking...

Is my smiling convincing as I stand in my own personal hell?
And while taking care of spiders might not be my cup of tea, it was certainly a very interesting experience! I can't thank the lab students enough for letting me scare the daylights out of myself and learn about some cool research while in the process. 

And the best thing? For students looking to get involved with research projects, there are always opportunities to volunteer or become a lab assistant. So if you want to get a taste of terror this Halloween, why not just walk down into the underworld of UTSC’s spider colony. It’ll be well worth the trip!

And while you're taking an on-campus adventure walk, what other places on campus are cool? Are there any other cool research labs at UTSC? Let me know by commenting or tweeting me @rantothezebra!

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