Harnessing Curiosity to Advance Science

Curiosity struck Matt Persons, professor of biology, when he was a child watching the ants in his backyard.

"I was watching them for hours trying to figure out why they did what they did," Persons remembers. "I would do little experiments with food to see how they changed their behavior and was always rewarded by the ants in terms of what they’d do or how they’d respond."

This laid the groundwork for his future work as one of a handful of arachnologists in Pennsylvania.

His most recent research, conducted with student research assistants, found that a wolf spider can tell when it walks into an area where other wolf spiders have been killed based on the pattern of silk deposition and feces.

"As my son succinctly puts it, 'Spiders can tell when they walk into a spider murder scene,'" Persons says. "They behave like humans would if they were to walk into an area showing evidence that someone was killed."

That is, they freeze.

This research, while interesting, begs the question—why? Surely not because the world needs to know about spider behavior? Actually, yes, Persons says.

"A single species of spider consumes up to 1 million insects per week, per acre of farmland here in Central Pennsylvania. Anything that effects that spider’s predatory behavior is going to have an impact on the insect populations upon which it feeds," Persons explains. "Although it is important to understand spider behavior, and there are many economic and ecological reasons for doing so, I ultimately do it for the sake of knowing the unknown."

Which is really the point. The world needs people with the curiosity to ask questions and the perseverance to find the answers.

"It’s how all knowledge is advanced," Persons says. "Much of the important research that has aided humans in health or technology was studied for an entirely different reason or purpose. We lose a lot if we pursue only the well-worn paths with the assumption of an immediate and applied payoff."