March 3, 2015 at 11:15am
Deb Hale Kirchner

Dr. Marianne RobertsonTwenty years later, Dr. Marianne Robertson’s enthusiasm never wanes. Just ask the devoted professor of biology, who has taught at Millikin since 1994, about her students, her teaching, and – as she calls them – the “critters” that surround her at home and at work in Leighty-Tabor Science Center. On any of those subjects, her passion for teaching and learning comes roaring out.

“I enjoy teaching students at all levels,” Robertson says, after leaping up to sit on a counter in the biology lab. “I especially love teaching freshmen and helping them with the high school to college transition.”

Robertson never stops teaching. Students are welcome to hang out in her office, and often do. Ostensibly they are there to study or consult her as their adviser, but while there she encourages them to set up the baby gate and open the door to her ferret house. Then, the students and Nelson Mandela (the ferret) engage in some hands-on learning as she explains ferret attributes, such as their highly developed sense of smell and tendency to hoard shiny objects. After one playtime session, it took her three days to find her keys, hidden behind her window blinds by Nelson, who also likes to nap in an open file drawer.

“Nelson is a rescue,” she says of her friendly ferret. “He makes guest appearances in the classroom, and students will ask if he can come to the lab.”

Robertson eagerly jumps down from the counter to show you just how much the two rescued chinchillas housed in the biology lab enjoy their daily dust bath, laughing with you while the furry pets twitch and roll about like towels in a dryer. But all the while, she’s explaining how this bath is essential to remove excess oils from their coats and noting how a flap covers their nasal passages to keep them from inhaling dust as they merrily toss and turn.

Two minutes later, she hops back on the counter to open an aquarium and coax out a rose-hair tarantula, tenderly holding the slightly pink arachnid while explaining how spiders, especially tarantulas, have an undeserved negative reputation. Insects and spiders are her area of expertise.

“Movies like ‘Arachnophobia’ give spiders a bad rap. Spiders are actually very beneficial to humans, because they eat the insects that would destroy our crops,” says Robertson.

To help dispel some of the rampant incorrect notions about spiders, Robertson leads educational spider programs at elementary schools, on campus visit days and whenever she gets a chance. She especially enjoys serving as a teacher and adviser for Millikin students conducting research projects on spiders and other creatures.

“In biology, all Millikin students are given the opportunity to do research, either independently or through class,” she says. Students, she feels, learn more when research is combined with classroom experience. In her spring honors seminar, each student is charged with the care, study and naming of a baby rose-hair tarantula for the semester. “The rose-hair is the perfect pet for a first-time tarantula owner,” Robertson says. For example, one student researched scavenging, studying the effects of eating live versus dead prey among spiders. In another study, a student researched female spiders who “chomp down,” as Robertson put it, on their mates during or shortly after copulation.

Robertson’s enthusiasm and passion for entomology are apparently contagious. At the end of the semester, the seminar students – many of whom may have been uneasy at first about the prospect of working with baby tarantulas – find it hard to say goodbye to their tiny subjects.

Dr. Marianne Robertson“We’ve had some tears at the end of the semester when they’ve had to leave them behind,” she says. Robertson is proud to note that a number of her former students studied entomology in graduate school, including a former student who recently received tenure as an entomology professor at his university.

She delights when students have that “aha” moment confirming that a research project has grabbed their whole-hearted attention. A moment just like that changed her life’s direction. As an undergraduate at Clemson University, Robertson’s field of study was mammal and bird behavior. During her senior year, she decided to take an elective on insect behavior that required spending the entire semester on one research project.

“I picked a spider to research, and the professor let me even though a spider isn’t technically an insect,” she says. That one spider study spun a web around Robertson’s imagination and wouldn’t let go.

“I loved it so much,” she says. “I spent more and more time on that class at the expense of my other work.” When her professor suggested that she might want to consider making entomology her graduate field of study, Robertson was stunned. “No way! This is too much fun!” she told her professor.

Twenty years later, she’s still having fun.

Spider Savvy

Impress your friends with these spider facts, courtesy of Dr. Marianne Robertson, MU professor of biology.

  • Of the more than 45,000 species of spiders, fewer than 30 are toxic to humans.
  • In order to grow, spiders shed their exoskeletons.
  • Spiders have eight legs and most, but not all, have eight eyes.
  • A bite from the Brazilian wandering spider, also known as the banana spider, can cause hours-long erections. As a result, its venom is being studied as a possible solution to erectile dysfunction.
  • Some spiders can walk upside down on ceilings; it varies depending on the type of spider.

Deb Hale Kirchner is senior director of communications for the alumni and development office and editor of Millikin Quarterly magazine. She gained a new respect for spiders following her conversation with Dr. Robertson and hopes to hold a tarantula very soon.

Photography and video by Alida Duff Sullivan ’06.

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