Ep. 8: Reframing Science and Not-So-Scary Spiders


In our interview with Dr. Chris Hawn, ecologist, and professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, we learned about their work in public science, science communication, environmental justice, and the intersection of those topics in their project "Spidey Senser." We also discussed how their black, nonbinary identity shapes their view of science and society (note: listener discretion is advised).

A transcript of this episode will be uploaded soon.

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[00:00:00] R: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us for another episode of Queer Science. My name is R, and I’m your cohost, co-creator and resident artist for the show. And

[00:00:20] Bri: And I’m Bri, your other cohost, editor and co-creator of this podcast. Usually we’d have more to say in this intro, but today’s episode is a long one. So let’s get right to it.

A few months ago, we spoke with Dr. Chris Hahn, professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore county, an amazing ecologist and professor who works in public science, communication and conservation and environmental justice. And we talked about how those topics intersect in their project: Spidey senser. 

[00:00:47] R: Like me, Chris is also non-binary and biracial. Up until then, I had never met someone who shared my identity in STEM. So we discussed some of the joys and difficulties of navigating academia as a proud black and queer person. Racism plays a big part of our conversation and motivation for why activism deserves a role in science. However, given reason legal verdicts and ongoing court cases, we wanted to give you this content warning of death and violence against black people. It’s still a good conversation, so stick around, just please be mindful of the topics. With that being said, let’s get started with an introduction from our guest.

[00:01:26] Dr Chris Hawn: Hi, my name is Chris Hahn. Um, my pronouns are they/them/theirs and I am a black, non-binary, environmental scientist. And I do, um, let’s see. I grew up in the Southwest, um, Arizona and New Mexico. And so I, I grew up with these great big landscapes and beautiful views and just fell in love with nature as a kid. Um, and my parents were not outdoorsy, but they liked the look of it. So they like, like to see the views through the glass. Um, and so for me, I always wanted to just go out and explore, um, but not being able to do that on my own. I just like, you know, pretended that I was exploring like all these, you know, this wilderness. Um, and so I really just use my imagination to pretend like I was on these big grand adventures, um, in my backyard or in, you know, the boonies out behind the house. Um, and, um, my parents did send me to biology camp when I was 10. Um, and that was, it was like this retired couple that, um, just took kids on field trips around, and like randomly got some animals to dissect. And so I, I loved it and wanted to be a biologist ever since. When I went off to, uh, to college, I had my first black teacher, and he was a black professor and he taught, um, my, my first intro class as a freshmen. And so I got to, um, I got, uh, he took me under his wing and I was able to, um, you know, learn what it meant to be a biologist. And he gave me research experience and I got to do exactly what I dreamed of as a kid, which was go out to a beautiful landscape. I got to go to Colorado and do research, um, do science and like, and hike and do like exactly the adventures that I had hoped. Uh, it was, it was really fun. I, um, I hiked, you know, 12,000 feet, um, mountains, and then, uh, trapped yellow bellied marmots and did studies and stuff. And it was, um, it was a blast. I had so much fun and I, I did it for four summers. Um, and, it completely. Uh, that was like, that was absolutely my dream. And I got to do it when I was, you know, 19.

[00:04:21] R: So I’ve got a story for you. One night, a teenager wanted a snack. There was a convenient store nearby, so he walked on over. It was cold and raining, so he pulled his hood up. He bought a bag of Skittles and a drink and decided to head home. He was on the phone with his girlfriend when a man and a truck started watching him. The boy continued towards his house and the man followed him.

The boy ran and the man chased him. Eventually catching him. They fought. Neighbors reported hearing screams for help. And then a shot rang out. The phone call ended, the cries stopped. At 7:30 PM on February 26th, 2012, Trayvon Martin was declared dead. The man who shot Trayvon knew nothing about him, besides his clothing and skin color.

He mentioned his race multiple times to authorities and immediately assumed this unfamiliar black person was quote “up to no good on drugs or something.” The story is an example of racial profiling and one of many, many cases where racial prejudice turned into fatal violence. People of color have experienced inequality, discrimination, and outright attempts at genocide in the United States for centuries. Racism isn’t new, but the way the news and media talk about violence against marginalized communities has changed.

Trayvon Martin’s death quickly gained national coverage, and by March it was more reported on than the presidential election. The masses mobilized. There were hundreds of protests around the country and we had to publicly face the way racism, influences people’s behavior and legislation. From one paranoid man with a gun, to systemic problems of racial profiling, over policing and higher incarceration rates of black and brown folks. Racism is everywhere. Living in a world that vilifies your existence can be really overwhelming. It’s also hard to see how you can make any difference in all that. 

[00:06:15] Dr Chris Hawn: But then in grad school, I also felt just like really, um, uh, just being an, a again in a mostly white space. Um, it was, it was hard to, um. I don’t know. It was hard to feel excited about the work all the time.

Um, and especially, like that really came to a head when Trayvon Martin was killed. I was like, what am I doing out here in the forest? Like collecting spiders, this is junk. I should not be here. I should be doing something more useful. Um, and, I think I, I could have left like science altogether at that point. Um, but I was able to spend time. I was fortunately in Durham, North Carolina, which has been, you know, the hub of civil rights since the sixties. Um, and that they’ve had a long standing tradition, um, of direct action. And so I was able to learn from organizers and take part of, of movements there. Um, and that really kept me engaged. Uh, by having this kind of side life, you know, of, of being able to, um, learn from QTPOC organizers. Um, and, and just feel like I was doing something that mattered. Um, and you know, sometimes my research felt like it mattered and a lot of times it didn’t, and this was a good offset for that. And so for me, My identity is really came into play because, you know, I was learning, um, as I was learning from activists and learning, um, you know, living in Durham, that was, that was the first time that I lived in a place where there were more black people. Um, like it was a majority black city, is a majority black city. And, um, I grew up, you know, in places where there were high, you know, populations of natives and Mexican Americans. And so it wasn’t necessarily all white, but white was still a dominant culture. Um, and like I still was in non-black areas. And so for me, um, everything that I was learning about blackness was coming from non-black people. Um, and mostly coming from, uh, um, that was still a white narrative that was dominating that. And so I had a lot to learn. Um, and I got to, um, in my time there and I was really able to understand more, um, about how, how pervasive, um, racism and sexism and homophobia, how they all just kind of weave together in a more systemic way. Um, and. Uh, was really able to see that everywhere, including in the field of ecology, including in my institution, including in, um, my work. Um, and so it, it just gave me, you know, my, my own experiences, but, but really also being able to take a few steps back and connecting with a broader picture, um, was really helpful for me. I learned a lot to just, um, yeah. See how these things kind of happen in everyday, um, instances and, and how they connect to something bigger. Um, and, and I had to challenge that too, and, and really learned that like, you can challenge that.

[00:10:15] R: And I was thinking about the, like, you grew up in an environment that’s still a predominantly white narrative. Like, so I’m, I’m biracial. So even, like diversity is good, but there’s a difference between being in a diverse group and seeing yourself in positions that you want to be in. So I kind of resonated with that.

Um, But like, you can be in a diverse environment, but not necessarily see yourself represented in the way that like, you need to see yourself represented. Like you see people that are similar to you, but they’re not you, they don’t have the same identity label. Um, so. 

[00:10:53] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah. And I think too, like. Everyone- everybody can be present, but not everybody has the same power. I’m also biracial. Uh, black and white and, um, you know, the way that, I noticed that we were different, like, that there was like this experience of like, noticing that people would like stare at my family and stuff like that. And they did it in like, you know, nice ways, they like smile and be like, you have a beautiful family. But we’d be at like Peter Piper pizza. It’s like filled with beautiful families. Right. Like having a great time. Um, and so why, um, so it took me a little bit to like, notice that like, oh, we’re an interracial family. And like that that’s a thing. And, um, and you know, from my parents, you know, it was, uh, uh. Getting together in the eighties was still a big deal. Um, and, and that, that, the narrative was that that was enough. Um, and, um, and I think a part of it too, was like, it was important to be respectable, and things like that, that still carried over. Just my, that’s how my dad was able to survive his life in a lot of ways. Um, was, um, I mean he grew up, um, he was born in the 1930s and so he grew up in, um, the Jim Crow south, where, white folks is crazy, just straight up crazy. And will turn on you in a second. And so you have to play by these rules and very carefully. Um, and, and so he, he did that and he learned to be exceptional and he was exceptional.

Um, and I remember like the first time. He played by the rules so much that when he told me like, when he was a kid, he would shine shoes. Um, and then, uh, but he would say that like, “Yeah. Uh, but we’d have to run from the cops.” And like, it was hard for me to imagine him doing something illegal. And like, why would you do something that was, you know, that was like, that would get you in trouble with the cops. Like, I didn’t understand like that kind of relationship. That just, you know. And especially at the same time watching Charlie brown and seeing lemonade stands and things like that, like, you know, that like he was a young entrepreneur. Right. But that was criminalized, um, because he was a young black kid. Um, so those are, I had, I had a lot of things to like learn and unpack that weren’t necessarily direct messages that took me awhile to like, figure out what was going on and, and trace things. And, and part of like, you know, I grew up in a place where there were lots. Um, there were lots of native folks, there were lots of Mexican-Americans, um, and there, but the story of colonization was really confusing to me.

Like new Mexico, as, it has a, um, when it was first colonized by Spain and then, uh, the United States later. Um, and so, but you know, that the story of all of that was not one of colonization that I learned. Right. Just kind of like, oh, everybody’s here and, and not why Mescalero Apache is a small reservation instead of, you know, a large part of the mountains and the state, um, as it used to be, or that, oh, it just so happens that there’s, um, an army base that’s just south of that. And, that was there to, to push natives out and restrict their land. And so there were things that I saw and they were proud of everyday life, but I didn’t actually put the pieces together until much later. And so like again, diverse area, but white dominant narrative. Um, and so I had to really step back and it wasn’t until I left to be able to put those pieces together. 

[00:15:28] R: Yeah, it was just like you had mentioned the whole, like, I really, the, the comment about like how it was presented as like a lovely, positive, nice message of like black people wanted rights and they got rights now everything’s better of like, that is like, It’s an injustice within itself, but it also doesn’t help anyone in the present by erasing the conflict and the blood and the tears that were shed to get to where we are.

So it’s that I, I’m very familiar with the whole, like, the civil rights were then, it went really well. Now everyone’s equal. And it’s like, that’s not, that’s not the true story. And to depict it in a way that. It’s erasure and it’s also just, it’s not good for anyone. So I really resonated with that whole like white narrative of like, it’s all peace, love and happiness.

Like it’s, it’s, and playing by the rules. Like, that’s another thing too, of the, like, you have to be the exceptional, like, I don’t know, over the top, like always good. Everything that you do is how people will see black people. Like, like you become the token, even though you don’t want to be. And so it’s like, how do you be yourself, but also how do you represent a community that these people don’t really have an interaction with?

Like it’s, yeah. It’s a heavy role to play and it’s hard to like discover it too of like, realizing like, this is what I hold like, this is, this is, this is what’s in like my pocket walking around. It gets heavy after a while.

[00:17:02] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah. Absolutely. 

[00:17:08] Bri: Continuing our discussion on identity, we asked Chris what it’s like to be out as a non-binary person in academic and STEM space. R and I are both young out professionals and we wanted to know more of the benefits and drawbacks there could be when we bring up our gender and sexuality in these spaces. 

[00:17:30] Dr Chris Hawn: I came out as non-binary right before I moved to Baltimore. Um, and so, you know, moving, moving here was you know a chance for me to, um, use these new pronouns and do that kind of stuff. And I remember standing up at orientation for new faculty and being like, you know, like my voice was shaking. I was like, “and my pronouns are they, them and theirs” really, you know, standing up in front of a group of strangers and saying that for the first time, um, out loud, But I found people to be very supportive. And what I found too was that, um, when I made declarations like that, or when, you know, I had my, had my queer little hair cut and do all the little things and wear my ties and, do my stuff, um, that it, it draws people to me, you know, it draws people that are, um, that are queer, that are POC that, you know, it’s, um, It’s a litmus test. You know, it, it like by just being me, it’s it, it just acts as a very clear sign of who I am and what I’m about. Um, and, and so it’s made it easier, um, I think in a lot of ways, um, because I’ve been fortunate enough to actually have people around me that are, um, that are really sweet and cool and. Also queer and all those things.

So, um, and it’s been also nice. Uh, I do this, uh, I have to do this as a professor now when I teach classes. Um, and so I get all kinds of students. Um, but, uh, I have them, I put that information in my, in the syllabus. And then I have a syllabus quiz and, you know, asking about like, what’s Dr. Hahn’s policy on late work and, you know, just like they can look it up.

It’s, it’s, it’s important that I know that, you know, when we know, but I I’ll put in a question of like, um, Dr. Hahn’s pronouns, are they, them and theirs, um, an example of how to use this in a sentence would be, um, you know, and then I have that as a multiple choice question, um. And so I, I do that to explain clearly how pronouns work in terms of here’s a sentence, choose the right one.

Um, and, uh, because I know a lot of my students, some of them know that stuff, some of them don’t, some of them speak other languages, um, English as a second language, third, whatever, um. And it brings me a lot of satisfaction to see people get that question correct. Um, and I feel like that it’s just how to like, bring that into the forefront.

Um, it’s important for me and it helps, it helps that communication process. And it also, uh, I feel like makes space for other people, other trans and non binary folks. Um, And I have the students come up to me in class too. Um, and it’s like, or sent little emails and stuff like that, of, um, I’m sure feeling the same way that I did when I had my first black professor, like you’re my first trans or nonbinary professor, you’re my first, you know?

Um, and so that, that feels good. Um, that that’s, that makes it easy to keep it going. Um, just to have, you know, at least one person a semester. Um, and have that be really important for them.

[00:21:30] Bri: LGBTQ students and professionals often face under-representation and discrimination in STEM fields. Published research, and our own experiences proved this. And because of that, it can be difficult for many people to come out in higher education. Especially those in teaching positions. 

[00:21:47] R: The first time a professor introduced themselves with pronouns, I was overwhelmed by my own relief and excitement. I didn’t consider the challenges that instructor may have gone through. Coming out is a constant process. It’s more than just a one and done deal. It’s incredibly intimidating and very dangerous for a lot of folks. 

[00:22:06] Bri: Exactly. We completely respect that some people aren’t able to come out. Representation and personal safety and wellbeing is a tricky balance for LGBTQ plus professionals to navigate.

[00:22:18] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah. I mean, just to, just to really appreciate that not everybody can be out. Um, you know, and I think that’s why, um, that’s why I feel like such a responsibility to do that because I, I can, and I have a lot of power, um, and like, you know, my colleagues listen to me, they respect my opinion. Um, and, um, like maybe in a room, it really gives them an opportunity to confront what they don’t know. And they can separate the plate or not, but they it’s, it’s a constant. You know, that’s a challenge. It’s not something that they can ignore. Um, and so like, like for instance, I got an email from a student who, um, this semester who’s non binary and was, you know, appreciating me for, um, you know, having my pronouns out and says that, you know, you know, they aren’t, they identify as non-binary, but, um, aren’t comfortable or like, you know, aren’t in the safe place to be able to present in any sort of way, or use the, you know, their pronouns publicly or things like that.

But, you know, just like, small shoutout. I’m here and I see you. 

[00:23:46] Bri: Yeah. 

[00:23:46] R: Yeah.

[00:23:46] Dr Chris Hawn: Um, and then it’s like, I’m going to go back into my little hidey hole. 

[00:23:50] Bri: *giggles* my little hidey hole

[00:23:51] R: It’s the little mere cat, like sticking its head out, like, oh, that’s what that is. And then going back in, because it’s safe and like that’s a completely valid way to live you’re like, if that’s what you have to do to make it through each day, that’s like perfectly valid and appropriate, but it does, it is helpful to like see people who are living, maybe not like your dream life, but you see people who are you, professionals, that are having a life that is successful, even if it’s not necessarily like successful- success has many different definitions, but to see someone who you admire, like thriving, or at least like being able to function in a position of like power of like, I dunno, it’s just representation in that, in that regard of like, “Hey look like that’s someone like me,” like, cool

[00:24:38] Bri: Yeah. Exactly

[00:24:39] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah. I like that adjustment of like thriving, well, functioning. 

[00:24:43] R: Yeah, its yeah. Thriving puts a little too much pressure, on, existence.

[00:24:51] Dr Chris Hawn: I agree. Um, but yeah, um, right. It’s um. There’s a, yeah, it was just nice, you know, that people need something while they’re, while they’re, uh, to get through those stages, too.

I remember like, you know, seeing people with like fashion and style that I was actually drawn to. I just thought like, I, you know, for a long time, I just like, oh, I don’t get fashion and I don’t get style. I just, you know, bland and boring, but really it was like, I don’t like any of the styles that I see.

And then when I saw somebody with style that I was really drawn to I was like “dang,” “yeah!”. 

[00:25:38] Bri: Yes!

[00:25:38] Dr Chris Hawn: I didn’t start, you know, wearing something different til much later, but, you know, seeing it, you know, planted a seed.

[00:25:46] R: The fact that it exists is a big deal. 

[00:25:51] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah! It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because people say that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s shameful to exist. And all this other stuff. Like, I mean, yeah. It’s like, that was the biggest thing I think, um, you know, that. You know, my, my colleagues, you know, would talk about, you know, as they’re like, they’re learning about, um, trans and non-binary issues and like learning language and stuff like that, you know that like, oh, I’m just, I’m not used to this. This is new for me. And I guarantee you, it is not new for them. It is new to show someone respect, that is a trans or non-binary or gender nonconforming, because I guarantee when you were growing up or a different areas, you’ve been laughing at movies that make fun of trans people all the time.

And like, oh, that, you know, I guarantee you know lots of language to describe this and, you know lots of things. And you’ve been doing that comfortably for a very long time. It’s just the first time that you’ve actually had to do this in a, um, in a respectful way, in a way that, in which I determined, um, and in a way that other trans and non-binary people have said that, like, this is the language that you use, and not that other trash.

Um, so it’s not to say that everybodys, yeah. Uh, it’s just people, if that’s the thing that they’re not used to, it’s like, oh, I didn’t know that people existed seriously out in the world like this, you know, I thought they were just jokes. 

[00:27:22] Bri: Yeah

[00:27:24] R: Yeah. It becomes less theoretical of like, if this exists, it’s like, no, I’m here. Like I’m right in front of you. Like what you’re saying affects me. 

[00:27:33] Dr Chris Hawn: Right. And ah, yeah. 

[00:27:35] Bri: And I don’t quite care if it’s new for you. *all laughing*

[00:27:39] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah, that too. Yeah. And I just, I just bristle with that too, just in the, um, in the, you know, when people are having assumptions that its new. Like this shit’s old. It’s like being straight is new, having two genders is new.

[00:28:00] Bri: Yes, it is.

[00:28:02] Dr Chris Hawn: Those things are, are very, are very new and have been very violently upheld. You had to beat people out of that for a very long time, um, and continue to do so. Uh, and so why do you think that that’s, it’s not new. It’s just that you tried to snuff it out, and we still here mother fucker.

[00:28:32] Bri: Going back to your students a little bit. Um, we were curious a little bit about how you teach, um, science communication and how you teach future science, communicators, um, and like the importance of that to you in the classes that you teach. 

[00:28:46] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah. I think it’s really important for, um, for folks in STEM to learn how to tell stories or to continue to tell stories. Um, That is, um, we, we, we tend to, um, uh, we tend to prioritize, you know, facts and you have to tell facts, you should not elaborate, things like that. That ends up being what structures, our language and how we, you know, they don’t even say like, communicate, they’re like “deliver information.” Um, you know, so it’s, and that, you know. One, that that gives the false sense of objectivity, which there’s not. Um, and, um, we don’t have to pretend that that’s there. And two, we lose the ability to connect with people and, you know, for issues in like conservation, those are all people problems. None of it’s because animals are out of whack or species are out of whack, its its, they’re all people problems. Like, all the threats to other species are, uh, can be, you know, it’s all us and, uh, you know, we’re capitalism and imperialism, and, us.

Uh, and so how we, how we connect to other people is super important. And, and so those are skills that I try to, um, to keep in people and, um, and, um, instill and try to develop more, um, because, uh, being effective in conservation, that’s not just with facts and data. Um, you can’t change anything with that. Um, people don’t be like, oh, this is what’s happening. You can clearly see without any data, uh, that things are going extinct. Like all these things. Um, but telling compelling stories can be really effective. Um, and so learning how to recognize those stories. Um, and, and really just to say that, like, you know, as, as people we’re all making observations, we can use those same skills that we have for science, which is, um, you know, observation recording, all that kind of stuff. Uh, use that to tell stories that can make as big of a difference, and, um, as our, as our data. 

[00:31:21] Bri: I have a follow-up question. What to you in science communication is a good story? 

[00:31:27] Dr Chris Hawn: Um, well, I, I tend to really go for stories that, um, that, uh, may connect people to, uh, to conservation, which is what we’re talking about. Um, may connect people to conservation for different reasons than loving animals. I want something less obvious. Um, and, uh, so, you know, I, I liked, uh, one of the things that I, um, use as, um, in one of my classes was, um, some interviews that I had done with folks in the borderlands. So in, in Southern Arizona, um, that did conservation for sky islands. And so, you know, these are, um, rare habitats, um, that connects the entire, um, Southwest and Northern Mexico. It’s an important, very connected, um, biome. And we’re building a wall through it. And so one of the most important things for conservation in the borderlands is immigration reform. 

Makes sense.

Right. And so really understanding like how, um, like really that immigration is affecting, um, the species there, was really important. And so like, I like stories that like that are intersectional. Um, I like stories that are, um, that take complexity and can, you know, draw a nice thread right through everything. Like, you know, just, um, I like, uh, stories that can, can flip something that you think, you know, right on its head. And so I encourage students to do that. And, you know, in whatever ways that they can, that’s, that’s hard, right. Um, but it’s, it’s all around us. It just takes, again, looking at something, maybe something that you’ve seen a bunch of times, but looking at something in a different way and, or talking to different people. Um, and so those are the, those are the skills that I’m trying to instill in people. Because again, like for conservation, if you’re talking to different people and you’re able to get, you know, similar, um, a good narrative there, um, you can get allies for what you’re trying to do.

[00:34:13] R: Chris is also involved with various public science projects, including Spidey Sensor, which uses spiderwebs to monitor air quality. 

[00:34:22] Bri: Wait, what is, what exactly is public science, R? 

[00:34:25] R: Great question. So public science refers to any kind of scientific research, those open to anyone, regardless of their background or education.

It’s the same concept as citizen science, but many find the term citizen to be limiting using the word public just emphasizes that everyone has a role in science. You, or me, or some random stranger on the street can still participate in research. Oftentimes, it’s non-experts that are needed the most to help find new scientific discoveries. 

[00:34:56] Dr Chris Hawn: For me, this work is my response, um, to, um, to feeling the isolated within STEM. Um, this is my opportunity to do a science communication, doing work beyond the ivory tower. Um, and doing science, that’s also rooted in grassroots organizing, all at the same time. Um, and that this is like, you know, I’ve been, I went to NC State and so I learned about public science 10 years ago. Um, starting up, um, as a, um, new graduate student, but had no idea how to actually design something myself and didn’t know what kind of projects that I would do. And, um, I saw so many, um, people doing the research that was really captivating people’s imaginations, you know. People really like an idea and want to learn this new science thing and participate in this new science, because it was neat, it was, it was something cool. Um, and I had no idea how I would do that. Um, but just really like the idea of it. Uh, and so, um, over time I, um, I helped people on their projects and. And did. Yeah. Just help people that, all their other stuff. And, um, a few years ago I read a paper, um, from this team in Poland doing like environmental engineering stuff, and they wrote a paper on how to, um, detect metal contamination. Um, by, through spiderweb. Um, and effectively they did a bunch of, they published a few papers, um, and the process of it was so perfect because it, it took a lot of the barriers out of even participating in public science, because, you know, you can measure air quality. There’s lots of projects that measure air quality. Um, um, a lot of them involve smartphones or sensors or some other added piece of technology that, you know, technology is getting better and things are getting cheaper, but still low cost sensors are like 200 bucks. Um, or, you know, they can go up to, you know, easily thousands of dollars.

[00:37:49] R: Yeah, I don’t have a spare $200 to spend on a sensor. *giggles*

[00:37:53] Dr Chris Hawn: And so, you know. That’s, that’s, um, that’s a barrier for a lot of folks. Um, and particularly the ones that are like, we have the largest burdens for that kind of contamination. Um, and so this is, this is air quality monitoring for, you know, five bucks or less. You have to pay for postage. Um, and that’s it. Um, and so, um, and you know, people can learn more about, you know, this, the natural history of spiders. Part of the project is that you know, you can’t just collect any spiderweb. You have to, you have to collect the spiderweb of a funnel Weaver spider. And so, you know, for me that’s like, you can actually identify different spiders by their webs because they build distinctly different, um, webs for different hunting strategies, you know. Different families have different types of webs. Um, so people have to- but that’s not necessarily something that people notice. Um, but you know, once you, once you learned that you kind of see it everywhere and there’s these spiders that you’ve been walking by that do no harm to you.

Like they’re completely neutral. That actually, not completely neutral. They’ve been eating things that you don’t like. That, you know, they’re just around. People can pay attention to them, and hopefully without fear. They’re not just always out there lurking, they’re just, you know, just chilling. 

[00:39:26] R: Underappreciated, arachnids, you know, they’re just out there trying to help everyone. And people are just like ew, spider, squish. 

[00:39:34] Dr Chris Hawn: That’s right. Yeah. And so, yeah, so I, I like, I like those aspects of the work. I also like just that, that feeling of, how people feel, uh, about spiders and really pushing back against those, those narratives of, um, fear of spiders, because, um, that’s also very new, um, and not a common story like around the world.

[00:40:04] Bri: Wait, really? 

[00:40:06] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah! Yeah. 

[00:40:08] Bri: I did not know that… 

[00:40:09] R: I sort of knew that, but yeah 

[00:40:11] Bri: no, yeah I I’m like, I want to hear more about this. Yeah. 

[00:40:16] Dr Chris Hawn: Okay, well, so lots of cultures have spiders as, um, like revered animals. Um, so, um, there are several creation stories that center spiders, um, in my culture, West Africa, there’s a spider God, uh, Anansi. Um, and for that, uh, character, he is, um, he embodies, um, mischief, cleverness, um, and he’s tiny. Uh, and yet he outwits his opponents, um, you know, using his wit. So he’s, um, and his opponents are like tiggers. Yeah, like giant, ferocious things that are, that could actually cause harm and are actually dangerous. Um, so spiders cause very little harm and they never have really caused harm around the world. Thinking about all the species that are out there, spiders are not on the top 10. They’re like they’re way low. I’m like actual harm that they could cause. Just thinking about like right now in this one place, dogs are way more harmful. They kill more people. They bite more people. They like, they cause a way more harm, but we love them, right? So it’s not the actual harm. It’s just our relationship with them. This is a new relationship that we’ve had. Uh, and that’s a colonial aspect in my opinion, because we kill things that we’re afraid of. That is a colonial act. Um, We’ve killed most top predators in the United States. Um, and uh, most threatening things, the deal is to kill them and eradicate them. Uh, we do that now with spiders as like the last thing, cause it’s like, that’s the, like, we’re not, we don’t encounter many dangerous things. We’re not used to that. The spider dares to still exist. Um, and, and we are mad at it for existing in our house. How dare you?! Or in like, where I actually I’d have to see you. Not doing anything, but you’re just existing. That’s a completely like colonial like mindset and action. And it’s not something that is, again, common, because spiders are overall harmless and, uh, like ridiculously harmless, um. And people again told like, um, lots of really positive stories about them, about their weaving abilities that, um, Cherokee tribes, were able to design their baskets out of, after watching, um, orb-weavers and, you know, so like doing these different, like, there have been a lot of positive qualities that have been drowned out, out of this model and it’s just so everywhere, every freaking movie or series-

[00:43:20] Bri: Yeah, that has a big, scary spider 

[00:43:21] Dr Chris Hawn: A big scary spider that’s like completely, you know, whatever. So it’s just, that’s just the dominant narrative, but that’s a really recent short history of scary spiders. Uh, and it’s pretty rare. Um, but it’s pervasive and so much so that people are like, oh, it’s evolutionary, that, that we’re afraid of spiders. 

That’s what 

[00:43:43] Bri: I was going to ask, because I know I’ve heard a lot where people say it’s an evolutionary trait to be afraid of snakes or whatever. Like, I’ve certainly heard that one, like the assumption in my brain is that people associate that too with spiders. And so I thought that was really interesting because that was the first example that popped in my head is like universally every human in the world doesn’t like snakes because our brains are pre-programmed by- and it’s like, I was like, what? Um, so it’s interesting. 

[00:44:08] Dr Chris Hawn: Uh, so, so that, that is a really great example, um, of people not being able to understand like their own, um, subjectivity. Right, of like, I am this way, because this is just the way that I am formed and not because this is the environment that I’m in right now. Right. And again, using, um, using the discipline of evolution to, um, back up what they feel. 

[00:44:36] Bri: Yeah. 

[00:44:38] Dr Chris Hawn: And like, I’m so rational that I will- like millions of years of evolution. Uh, is, is like, this is, um, I’m the product of, of all these years of evolution. And that’s why I feel this way. And not because I feel this way because I’m scared. And I see other people afraid, like, 

[00:44:56] Bri: Yeah. 

[00:44:57] Dr Chris Hawn: That’s not the most parsimonious, logical conclusion, in any sort of way. Um, but that’s, that’s what happens. Uh, so that’s the- if I write a book, that’s the one. 

[00:45:11] Bri: I would read it! Yeah R and I are like “yeah!”

[00:45:14] R: I’m fascinated by spiders. And I, like working at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for a bit, like, in one of the interactive labs, um, there’s like, there’s several tarantulas on display and like hissing cockroaches that they can interact with. And usually the kids are like fine with it. Like, if you’re under the age of like seven or eight, you’re super excited about it, but it’s the parents that are like, “ew that’s gross” or, like “don’t touch them, they’re dirty.” And it’s like, well, no, they’re actually very clean. Like, it’s just the environment that they tend to be in is full of toxins and pollutants and other things that are really nasty. Like the animals themselves are like very chill. The most, a hissing cockroach is going to do to you is hiss. Like, that’s it. It’s not going to fly in your face. It’s not going to like jump at you. Like it’s, it’s, they’re just trying to exist. And you happen to be there. Like, unless you cause direct harm to it or immediately threaten it, it’s just going to exist beside you. Like, there’s nothing wrong with it. So it’s, I, I’ve witnessed that whole thing of like humans- while I do think that there’s some like evolutionary, just like fear of being aware of your surroundings and trying to find patterns, and like realizing which plants are bad and like which snakes are bad for you, and stuff like that.

But, like you mentioned snakes, and I can think of several stories in which snakes are like, they’re kind of sneaky, but in the same way that a fox is sneaky. Or, or I guess a spider and the way that it’s just like, that’s a trait belonging to the animal, but it’s not bad. So it’s like humans can be receptive to anything. It’s just the culture that you’re in. And like, I love spiders. I was looking around to see if there are any spiders. Like I get scared by spiders, but just because they startle me. Like, the animal itself, like it could be like a caterpillar and I’d had the same reaction. Like. 

[00:47:03] Bri: I would like to say that spiders are great roommates. When I, when I lived in Australia, um, I lived in like the student housing and every day there was this little spider that would come out from behind this picture on the wall, come like, run like six inches to the side of it. And at first, when I first saw him, I was like, “oh my God, it’s a spider.” And then I just kinda like, I dunno if I’m just like that extroverted that I was just enjoyed every like couple of hours and I would see him pop out and then he’d run back under the picture frame again. And I was like, he’s my friend. He’s my roommate now. We’re buddies. 

[00:47:32] R: That’s also Australia. I’d be concerned- 

[00:47:35] Bri: It was a tiny one. It wasn’t like a Huntsman up in the corner, so

[00:47:37] R: A giant one that like, 

[00:47:38] Bri: No, it wasn’t one of the big ones

[00:47:40] R: Because it’s Australia, you never know. Even the plants, want you dead 

[00:47:43] Bri: Yeah. If we were talking about like the Australian context… *giggles* it would be different

[00:47:47] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah. I just, I think we take for granted, what is, um, what’s social and what’s cultural. And tend to, um, extrapolate that to like, this is universal. This is. This is old. Um, and that, I see that in so many things in, in spiders when talking about gender and talking about race, all of these things like. It comes up over and over again in like pretty similar ways.

[00:48:20] Bri: All right. We’re near the end of the episode now, we did say this would be a long one. Now let’s hear some final thoughts from Chris. 

[00:48:30] R: Before we close out this episode, we want to mention that Chris is working with a group of black ecologists to publish a blackout issue of various ecology journals. Their goal is to be published on Juneteenth, 2022. So keep an eye out next summer.

[00:48:53] Dr Chris Hawn: I’m just grateful now, that I can do the research that I had hope, um, that I could, you know, where I was really able to, um, you know, marry social justice along with ecology and conservation. And, um, because they, they have, um, a place together. There’s an importance where, um, I see that by, you know, blending those, those, um, those disciplines. Um, they’re huge gaps, in, um, that that really opened up, um, that it has been unexplored. Um, and so like there’s, um, and that can have like a, you know, theoretical impact for the field and also a practical impact for, um, for communities. And that’s what I, what I hope to do and continue. Um, and there’s some pretty rad black ecologists that are doing some, some work on that, that I’m excited to, um, you know, call my peers and, and, and continue to kind of push the boundaries of our discipline for that. 

[00:50:13] Bri: What was the, um, you were working on an article today with them, is that what you said? Do you know when that is likely going to be published? Where that sort of stuff? 

[00:50:23] Dr Chris Hawn: Yeah, we’re doing a- um, it’ll be, um, a blackout issue of, um, ecology, uh, frontiers of ecology, ecological monographs, and a few other like ESA journals. I think we got five of them. Um, but it’ll be, uh, that it’ll be actually published, the goal is like, um, Juneteenth of 2022, so next year. Um, and so we’re trying to get all the articles written, to submit for this summer so that we can get everything ready for publication to come out then. So, it’ll be awhile, but, uh, it’s cool because again, I, I was on a zoom call with, I think there were like 12 of us black ecologists working on cool and really different stuff. And in that one hour, I got more inspired in ecology than I’d had, like… it’s just, um, you know, folks that have marginalized identities are more likely to do intersectional work and that those perspectives are really missing in the field. And so seeing how people are, um, using their perspectives to really shine a light on, what’s missing is just really cool. It’s stuff that I hadn’t thought about and, stuff that I’m into.

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