YOU ATTRACT an unusual amount of attention for a scientist. The New Yorker ran a profile of you, you inspired a children’s book, and you’ve been interviewed on NPR. Why? Spiders grab people’s attention. When people ask me what I do, I vary my response based on how much energy I have to explain.
Some of your colleagues in Australia recently named a new species—Austrarchaea binfordae—in your honor. Does that satisfy a long-held dream? No, no. There are so many species out there that need names. I have at least eight species related to the brown recluse that need names, so I’m thinking of names right now. You honor your friends, or the place that the species came from. The most prolific people on the front lines of this work can name 50 or 100 species. It’s one of the beautiful rules of scientific nomenclature that you don’t name them after yourself.
You crawl around the bowels of buildings looking for poisonous spiders. How did you get into this? I look like an otherwise normal person, but I’ve got this obsession with spider diversity. I grew up on a farm in Indiana. Being a scientist wasn’t on the menu for a young girl from the rural Midwest in the ’70s and ’80s. But I always loved biology, and I was outside all the time, getting dirty. I was in a college genetics class when my professor invited me to do research with her in Peru. I had this amazing experience of sitting in the rain forest and having experts tell me, “You know that species? We have no idea what it is.” It exposed me, for the very first time, to how little we know.
Are you partial to any particular spiders? One of my favorites is the spitting spider. They spit toxic glue on their prey. They approach, squeeze their glue sac, and glue shoots out super-fast. It tethers the prey to the ground. Right now we’re trying to figure out what the chemicals are in their venom, and what the glue is made of.
There has to be more to it than spiders, right? The thing that drives me—the thing that gets me up in the morning—is that the world is full of biological diversity, and we only know about a tiny fraction of it. You don’t have to go far to find intricate, undiscovered beauty in the world.