Gates grant helps UWT student spin research web

When Levi Keesecker tells people he studies spiders, a creepy look often skitters across their faces. 

But Keesecker is smiling. Now he’ll be paid to track spiders in tropical countries. The University of Washington Tacoma senior received word earlier this month that he’s been named a Mary Gates Scholar and awarded a Mary Gates Endowment for Students Research Scholarship to support his research with a faculty member on spiders and their potential to reduce the use of harmful pesticides.

Spiders, particularly tropical ones, and their value to the environment may have been largely overlooked because of people’s aversion to them, leaving the field wide open for discoveries, Keesecker believes. Devoting the past eight months to spider collecting, literature review, specimen identification, data analysis and writing, he knows the minute details of about 50 spider families and can tell you about their physical attributes and their behaviors—how they hunt, parent, swim and build webs.

“It’s fascinating,” says Keesecker, who hadn’t thought much about spiders before this project.  “But I don’t want to be known as the spider expert.”

Noting his interests typically lie where two things intersect, his spider research findings are just one piece of the puzzle he wants to solve. He’ll use his findings to explore the agricultural benefits of spiders as a natural pest control, which could reduce human reliance on environmentally damaging chemical pesticides and farming practices. 

Keesecker’s award comes with a $3,000 scholarship, which will help the environmental  science major continue his research with Associate Professor of Biology John “Buck” Banks this spring on classifying and analyzing spider distributions in rainforest and farm habitats using specimens they collected on a 2005 Costa Rica research trip.  With additional support from a UWT Chancellor’s Fund for Research & Scholarship Award, Keesecker will travel to Yucatan Province, Mexico in May with Banks to collect more spiders in different successional stages of tropical forest.

“It’s a great accomplishment for one of our students,” Banks says.  “We are currently finishing up a co-authored paper on this work, which will be submitted to a peer-reviewed tropical ecology journal this quarter.”

Keesecker says his award and opportunity to publish in a scholarly journal as an undergraduate is a testament to the strength of UW Tacoma’s Environmental Science Program, its faculty and staff.

“The program is awesome,” says the Spokane native.  “It’s small and the professors know you by your first name, they know your history and are willing to go out of their way to help you.”  He says Dr. Banks really fosters students’ interests and anticipates what they need to know.

Keesecker is UW Tacoma’s second Mary Gates Scholar. He was one of 161 students who received a Mary Gates Research Scholarship this academic year.

The competitive research award is intended to enhance undergraduate education at the University of Washington by providing support while a student is engaged in research with a professor. Keesecker will present his research at the University of Washington Seattle’s tenth annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in Spring 2006.

Past recipients of research scholarships include undergraduates involved in faculty research projects such as designing a telecommunication network to bridge five Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation economies, researching genetic mechanisms that may lead to identifying the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease, researching the history of the ethnic media in the Pacific Northwest and examining its role within local ethnic communities.