Maydianne Andrade on black widow spiders and fighting for racial equity in science

Maydianne Andrade can be a caretaker to well over 50,000 spiders at any given time. And for the most part, she works with black widows, the infamous spiders with a cannibalistic mating ritual and a venomous bite.

But black widows are not the toughest thing she has to handle in her work.

Like many scientists of colour, during her career Andrade has faced barriers erected by discrimination and unconscious bias. For years she’s fought to tear down those barriers, through activism and education.  And since the racial reckoning this summer, that part of her work has only grown more urgent.

Andrade, an ecologist with the University of Toronto Scarborough, spoke to Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald about her work with spiders and the burdens she faces as a Black scientist. Here is part of their conversation. 

What is it about black widows that’s fascinated you for all these years? 

I think it’s extremism, in a funny kind of spidery way. The life of black widows is extreme in many different ways, not the least of which is that males of many species are short lived, have a very hard time finding a potential mate and often die during the mating or shortly thereafter. So that kind of extremism is interesting to me as an evolutionary biologist, because it means that there are very high stakes with respect to [the] male’s traits and how it allows him to achieve what is necessary to achieve, if his genes are going to be passed on to the next generation. 

Spiders are not exactly a charismatic animal in many people’s minds. Do you feel like you have a different experience than someone who works on tigers or cute birds like chickadees? 

I have to spend quite a lot of time convincing people that studying spiders is actually important. They are one of the dominant invertebrate terrestrial predators, which means that they take down a lot of insects. And so understanding how they work in their environment is actually important for us, understanding how to maintain the health of those environments.

Maydianne Andrade in the field with student Nizanthan Rathitharan as they study sibling cannibalism among web-building spiders. (Ken Jones/UTSC )

If you look at the distribution of the diversity of organisms in nature, insects and spiders make up a huge proportion of that diversity. And yet they make up only a tiny proportion of what type of work we’re publishing on, and so it really is the animals with the big eyelashes and the big eyes, you know, the cute mammals and the beautiful sounding birds that the people are studying disproportionately. 

You also do a lot of work teaching about unconscious biases among scientists themselves. Tell me about that. 

That’s been an interesting sort of offshoot of my work. As a young scientist, I started reading the literature in this area and the literature was quite shocking to me because it demonstrated how very small cues can cause us to make decisions based on our biases, even if we think that we’re making decisions based on facts, and that a lot of that could explain the problems of representation. 

Can you give me some examples of the harms that unconscious bias can lead to? 

One of the studies is one in which lawyers were asked to assess a memorandum produced by someone who they were told was a young lawyer. And this was fictitious. It was an identical memorandum in which they had introduced 22 errors. And they said, can you assess the quality of the writing of these young lawyers? And they gave some demographic information about those lawyers, where one was said to have been white and one was said to have been Black, and [the documents] were identical. 

Imposter syndrome is worse if, in fact, you never see someone who looks like you in your field.– Prof. Maydianne Andrade

They found [81] per cent of the errors that have been introduced into the document if they were told the lawyer was Black, and [57] per cent of the errors if they thought the lawyer was white. So it actually changed how they saw the document. 

What has it been like for you as a Black scientist working in the field? 

So people don’t realize that there is a weight associated with the barriers that exist for people of colour and that you are lifting that weight throughout your career, even when it’s invisible to others. People just have no idea of the things that we deal with, day to day, that are over and on top of the things that that other scientists who are not people of colour are dealing with. And it’s kind of a constant drain on your energy and your confidence. 

Can you give me an example of what you faced? 

One of the things you hear from people, about women as well as people of colour and Indigenous people, is that they suffer from imposter syndrome, and that that imposter syndrome is making it hard for them to be confident and that’s one of the reasons they don’t do as well. Definitely I feel imposter syndrome. A lot of us do, feeling like, wow, they’re going to discover that I shouldn’t be here. But imposter syndrome is worse if, in fact, you never see someone who looks like you in your field.

Andrade, seen here in her lab, is best known for her work on the mating habits of spiders. (Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto Scarborough)

So, for example, from the time I was doing my masters, when another student asked me to type up his scholarship application, the times when I’ve been in a room where leader in the room actually said, ‘will you women please make up your minds?’ — when one of us said we felt cold and one of us said it’s actually kind of warm in the room. Just various things that are constantly sending a message, either that you’re not the same as others, you don’t belong here, or that you are thought of as part of a monolithic “Black Woman.” It becomes tiresome. 

You are now a senior researcher, and you mentor young racialized students. Do you have any sense that things are different for them now than they were for you? 

My daughter is now in her first year at McGill and we will have discussions about equity. She’s studying political science and she’ll say how bad things are right now, especially this year when everything is so close to the surface. And I’ll say you were never called the N-word on the playground, were you? And obviously no one should be, but I was. And that has changed. I think that still happens to some people. But I think the majority of people realize it’s unacceptable and there’s somewhere for people to go if they experience that sort of extreme end of things, at least in our context.

The body in which people move through the world does influence how we think about their work, even if we wish it didn’t.– Prof. Maydianne Andrade

So some things have improved in the sense that we’re moving forward as a group, as a society. And I’m hoping that what it does is just make us all more able to accept difference.

Have you seen any signs that COVID and its related lockdowns are threatening diversity in science? 

COVID is a huge challenge for a number of reasons. The public health ones are obvious, but in addition to that, when people are threatened, things lock down in other ways. Our budgets are at risk. Our economy is at risk. And so particularly when people think of inclusion as icing rather than cake, they start thinking, you know what, I can do without the icing right now. We’ll deal with it again when our economy stabilizes. And that would be tragic because we’ve made so many advances. 

So how can science do better? What would you like to see in the long term? 

I would like to see a recognition that, in fact, the body in which people move through the world does influence how we think about their work, even if we wish it didn’t. Because once you take that step towards recognizing it — and that science isn’t always impartial, even though it strives to be — then you can deal with it.

It’s when we refuse to name the elephant in the room that the elephant tramples over our ability to to take the insights and the novelty and the innovation that is available in all the citizens in our society and put it to good use. 


Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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