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Killer spiders and rocking research: UTSC celebrates two of its talented researchers

Professors Maydianne Andrade and Nick Eyles delivered lectures on their life's work on November 23. Both are this recipients of the 2016 Principal’s Research Award. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Two of U of T Scarborough’s most talented researchers were fêted for their life’s work as part of the Celebration of Research Excellence ceremony on November 25.

Professors Maydianne Andrade and Nick Eyles, both recipients of the 2016 Principal’s Research Award, delivered lectures to a guest audience on their careers as researchers.

“U of T Scarborough has a proud history of innovative teaching and research,” says Principal Bruce Kidd, who opened the event.

“These two are recognized not only for their outstanding research, but also for their teaching inside and outside the classroom. They continue the UTSC tradition of providing unique learning experiences that allow our students to thrive.”

Andrade, a professor in the biology department at UTSC, is a world-renowned expert on black widow spiders.

“When I started my research I was most interested in sexual cannibalism,” she says. “I mean why wouldn’t you be? It’s puzzling, it’s interesting, and it poses an evolutionary conundrum.”

Her work has since evolved into also looking at plasticity and the evolution of plasticity, that is, how specific traits are expressed in an organism over time when exposed to different environmental conditions.

She also shared her thoughts about the importance of fundamental research.

“You can’t anticipate where fundamental research will take you because you can’t anticipate the problems that will need to be solved in the future,” she says. “We also don’t know which pieces of information will eventually be very important.”

She says the curiosity that drives fundamental research often has unintended yet very practical consequences. She points to the Mars Rover whose workings are modelled on an insect nervous system, all knowledge that wouldn’t have been well understood without important fundamental research.

“I love doing research on spiders because they are super cool, and because we can study them in the field and in the lab,” she says, adding that in the lab they can be studied under realistic conditions. “They have these specific traits where we can make forensic predictions of what we expect to see from them in terms of plasticity.”

Eyles, a faculty member in the Department of Physical and Environmental Science, has been at U of T Scarborough for more than 30 years. He became interested in geology during the 1960s as a kid growing up in London, England. “I felt claustrophobic living in London,” he says. “I wanted to get out into the countryside and explore.”

He remembers reading a 1963 article in Scientific American about the revolutionary work on plate tectonics by Canadian geologist Jack Tuzo Wilson

“I was captivated by it,” says Eyles. “It showed how the planet worked. I bought a motorcycle the same year I read the article and just went out exploring the geology of Britain.”

He covered early research into how the continents were formed, exploring ancient rocks and even passed around one for the audience that is 4.1 billion years old. 

Showing images of banded gneiss near Grenville, Ontario, the site of 1.5-billion-year old rock that once formed the bottom of an ancient mountain range since eroded by wind, rain and ice, he says it records how our landscape looked like ages ago. “There are memories of ancient environments that can be found these rocks,” he says.   

His field research over the years has covered many continents including work in Iceland, the Grand Canyon, and recently in Congo where his team drew a core sample of the earth more than a hundred miles deep.

He talked about dating zircon crystals, tiny minerals about the diameter of a human hair embedded in rock. Using an iron probe to extract atoms of uranium and lead, the process can measure the age of the crystal.

Eyles also highlighted current research that uses satellite laser imagery to show how distinct, bullet-looking landforms that dot Ontario and areas of North America were carved out by erosion during the retreat of the last ice age. He points to a similar process taking place in Iceland where fast flowing streams of ice that are carving up the landscape can be observed. 

“What drives my curiosity is to find out more about how the planet works,” he says. “I only have a finite amount of time on earth and that’s what I want to do – I want to find out as much as I can about the planet before I become part of it.” 


© University of Toronto Scarborough