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Creepy crawly critters fascinate award-winning Master’s student

GRADUATE STUDENT RESEARCH AWARDS: (Left to right), PhD student Edward Eng, Professor Mark Schmuckler, Master's Student Maria Modanu, and PhD student Catherine Febria, representative of the campus chapter of the Let's Talk Science Partnership Program. (Photo by Steve Hayward.)

by Eleni Kanavas

Spiders don’t scare Maria Modanu -- not even venomous black widow spiders.

Modanu is the recipient of the 2009 Master’s Graduate Student Research Award. The winner in the PhD category is student Edward Eng. (Click here for a profile of Edward Eng.)

Professor Mark Schmuckler, interim vice-principal (research) presented the winners with a certificate of achievement during a ceremony held in the Science Research Building lounge in June. The annual awards are decided by a selection committee made up of faculty members, graduate students, and the vice-principal (research). Recipients received a monetary award of $1,000 as well as having their names engraved on a plaque mounted on a wall in the Meeting Place.

“To be recognized for my research in this way is really an honour for our lab,” Modanu said. “I am particularly grateful to my supervisor, Professor Maydianne Andrade, for guiding and inspiring the research I do.”

Modanu joined Andrade’s lab in 2007. She has been examining the mating system and behaviour of the western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus). Her research focuses on “understanding how animals distribute limited resources during development based on what’s necessary for them to reproduce successfully as adults,” she explains. She studies the decisions made by male spiders during development when they are injured -- specifically when their reproductive ability is compromised.

“Maria embodies all of the skills required of a prominent scientist,” said her peer, PhD student Jeffrey Stoltz. “She is extremely dedicated to her projects and has the ability to determine outstanding questions in literature and produce creative experiments to test them. A project of the scope she has undertaken requires lucubration, which she constantly demonstrates. She is also au fait of many subjects within ecology and evolutionary biology and is an extremely valued editor of papers that are written within our research group on a variety of topics.”

“Maria’s genuine interest in the scientific process is a quality that sets her apart,” added Stoltz. “She is always interested in projects undertaken by other students in the group and provides insightful comments at all stages of a project, including design, implementation, analysis, manuscript writing and presentation of findings. She possesses the characteristics that exemplify the model candidate for this award, and there’s no doubt in my mind that she will have productive career in science.”

Modanu is also collaborating with Emily MacLeod, a PhD student in Andrade’s lab. They are investigating the ability of males to mate multiple times, which she said is not always possible among black widow spiders due to genital damage or lethal cannibalism after the initial mating.

Results have shown that males can mate more than once despite genital damage, which has implications for some processes that drive the evolution of this mating system, she said.

When asked what she likes best about her research, she says it is a combination of factors. “The best parts are all the surprises that result from experiments that seem straightforward and simple when we first started,” she said. “It’s really a self-perpetuating process, and spider sex is cool because it’s so bizarre.”

Born in Skopje, Macedonia, Modanu describes herself as a nomad, having lived in various places while growing up, including China, Taiwan and Malta, and hopes to continue traveling throughout her life. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, focusing her studies on aggression in female fruit flies, among other topics.

“Science seemed like the most exciting way to spend your life in places where others pay to travel for an adventure or vacation,” said Modanu, who was intrigued as a child by the pages of National Geographic.

During her first year as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta, Modanu volunteered on a short field project in the Canadian Rockies to help out a graduate student. This gave her the opportunity to experience research conducted outside of the lab and the classroom.

“There are a million and one ways to be a scientist,” she said. “Science today is very collaborative and interdisciplinary, so you don’t have to limit your interests or skills to a single area of study.”

Now in her second-year of the MSc program at U of T Scarborough, Modanu is expected to graduate in fall 2009 after defending her thesis. For the past two years, she has been a teaching assistant for two biology courses, Animal Behaviour, taught by Kamini Persaud and Evolution, taught by Paul DeLuca and Shobha Sharma.

Modanu has also published an article in the Journal of Arachnology and is preparing other articles for submission.

Aside from her academic contributions, Modanu has been involved in various activities at U of T Scarborough such as the Graduate Students’ Association (GSAS).

As the seminar series coordinator for GSAS, Modanu organized visits by two professors,  Peter Hurd from the University of Alberta and Paul Faure from McMaster University, to UTSC. They delivered a lecture about their research, spoke with graduate students and faculty and toured the campus labs and facilities.

More recently, Modanu joined the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program — a national outreach program that promotes science to schoolchildren from kindergarten to Grade 12. She serves as a volunteer educator and hopes to continue her involvement after graduation.

“I had no exposure to science as a career choice when I was growing up,” she said. “That’s why I want to share the thrill of learning about cool science topics with children, and to also challenge myself to present scientific concepts in a fun and age-appropriate way.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough