Faculty Highlights: Linda Rayor

Senior Research Associate, Entomology

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Like the spiders she studies, Linda Rayor -- senior research associate of arthropod behavior at Cornell -- spins webs. Her webs, however, aren’t to snag prey but to capture the scientific imagination of people of all ages. Using the mystique of spiders as a gateway to kindle an awe for nature in others, this arachnophile (spider lover) has become the hub of giant webs of learning.

Photo of Faculty Highlights: Linda Rayor

Faculty Highlights: Linda Rayor

Rayor weaves her webs by first inspiring students, transforming many from arachnophobes (people fearful of spiders) into arachnophiles through her lively undergraduate courses on spider biology and insect behavior. Her passion for the exotic and exquisite natural world is infectious and radiates throughout the community and far beyond via her student “speakers’ bureau,” a cadre of trained students who use live specimens and dynamic teaching tools to communicate their enthusiasm for biology. the first eight years of this program the students have spoken to more than 16,000 people through nearly 500 presentations to classrooms, clubs and community groups.

“When I began teaching spider biology, I knew that spiders were appealing, with their interesting biology and behavior, but I didn’t have a clue that they verge on the magical to so many people,” says Rayor, who recently reaped a Kaplan Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Service-Learning Award from Cornell’s Public Service Center.

What motivates Rayor to spread natural history knowledge far beyond her teaching and research responsibilities?

“Payback,” she says. “My guess is that no one makes it without good mentors. I had a mentor in fifth grade who made it O.K. for me to think about becoming a scientist, and later a good mentor in graduate school who encouraged me to follow my passion for behavior, and that mentoring is what made all the difference for me. I also want to share with undergraduate students the real pleasure of teaching because I think teaching is one of the best things anyone can do. Research is wonderful, but as a good teacher you get strokes every day for doing a good job.”

Her highly successful outreach efforts began in 1998 as the Spider Outreach Program: Eight-legged Ambassadors for Science Education. The program evolved recently into the Naturalist Outreach in Biology program to offer a much wider variety of presentations on the natural history, ecology and behavior of arthropods, birds, mammals, reptiles, seeds and adaptations.

Rayor’s interdisciplinary course, Naturalist Outreach Practicum, trains students to give scientific inquiry-based outreach programs at different levels, from schools and museums to developing large community events. The participating students learn pedagogy, sharpen their public-speaking skills and experience the joys of teaching, which Rayor conveys every time she teaches or talks about teaching.

“Linda has this gift of turning students on to nature and [has] the good instincts and taste to know how to show bugs and spiders in a way that students find congenial and not nerdy or dorky,” says Ron Hoy, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell. “Her ability to draw large crowds into a course on spiders, for example, is a pedagogical marvel.”

Rayor’s teaching and outreach programs also can change many a student’s life.
“She turned me from a spider-fearing ignoramus into a fellow community-contributing arachnophile, and my experiences with her have supercharged my passion for teaching biology and researching animal social behavior,” says Frank Castelli ’05, who took Rayor’s spider biology course and later served as a teaching assistant for the class. In two years Castelli gave about 15 talks to some 500 people as part of the outreach program. He conducted research with Rayor before heading to graduate school. “I want to become a behavioral ecologist, and my experiences with Dr. Rayor have reassured me that I have chosen the right dream to pursue. I only hope one day I can be as good as a professor as she is.”

Among other projects, the Cornell spider woman, whose lab is home to many colonies of social spiders, is studying conflict and cooperation in cannibalistic social spiders; mother-offspring dynamics in solitary vs. social spiders; and patterns of social communication and exploration in social whip spiders.

“Spiders are primarily solitary, readily cannibalistic and voracious predators that are the most important terrestrial predators on Earth,” Rayor explains. “Yet 1 percent of spiders are highly social, living in large groups characterized by tolerance and cooperation. Even in the most social spider species, we’re finding that individuals must balance the many benefits of group living with the strong compulsion to eat irritating siblings.”

Rayor also mentors a host of undergraduate students as research assistants in her laboratory every year, ensuring that they help in research design, behavioral recording, data analysis and in writing scientific papers -- serving “as true collaborators, rather than hired hands.” In fact, she has co-authored most of her recent academic papers with undergraduates. In addition, she organizes the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in Entomology, offers a free, online multimedia show about spiders at CyberTower and hosts Cornell alumni on nature tours around the world. She also organized the first Cornell Insectapalooza, an entomology open house, in 2004. The second event attracted more than 1,300 people from the community.

Rayor grew up in Denver and barely remembers insects or spiders in that high and dry habitat; she didn’t see her first firefly until age 15. But her love for animals prompted her to major in biology at the University of Colorado. Rayor then attended the University of Kansas for doctoral studies in behavioral ecology. But when her research population of 1,500 prairie dogs died of the bubonic plague, Rayor switched gears. “The trauma of seeing massive numbers of animals I knew personally die was too much for me. I realized that most of the issues that I was really interested in could be approached better with arthropods,” she says.

Her interest in spiders during graduate school was shared with fellow student Cole Gilbert, who is now both her husband and entomology colleague at Cornell.

Rayor earned her Ph.D. degree in 1987 and then fostered her fascination with social spiders doing postdoctoral research at the University of Cincinnati and in Mexico, and she hasn’t wavered since.