LaGuardia Community College Student Takes First Prize in a National Competition for Her Research on the Ground Spider

Long Island City, NY—April 8, 2014— Amanda Tsang, a LaGuardia Community College student, placed first at the Sigma Xi Research Showcase, a nationwide online science competition, for her research project that is tracing the evolution of the ground spider, one of the largest but little researched spider families.

Amanda and Dr. Boris Zakharov, her faculty mentor, are looking at the evolution of the ground spider by examining the setae, the hair-like structures on the spider’s abdomen.   The ground spider, also known as the family of Gnaphosidae, is the seventh largest family of spiders, with 2,162 described species in 122 genera distributed worldwide.

“Previous studies found that setae vary among ground spiders and may give researchers cues for their classification on the generic and subfamily level, however these microstructures and their variations across the family are still not known,” said Amanda, “Our goal was to look at these spider hairs and understand how we can see the evolution of these different spider groups through the kinds of hairs they have.  The idea is that genera that are closer to each other from an evolutionary standpoint will have similar types of setae.

To reach its goal, the team, for the past six months, conducted research at the American Museum of Natural History, home of a large spider collection.   Amanda was responsible for preparing the spiders for review, a long process that entailed desiccating the spider using a freeze-drying technique.  The spiders were then mounted on a slide so that the body parts could be viewed under a scanning electron microscope.

After examining some 30 specimens, Amanda noted that the findings demonstrated that each genus of ground spider has a distinct type of setae.   “More research into spider setae may help us better understand their evolution,” she added.

The research is described in a video that Amanda produced for the competition.  Line drawings illustrate some of the different forms setae takes: common forms of setae include plumose setae, which are feather-like hairs; and simple squamous setae, which are flat and scale-like hairs.  Following are images showing some of the distinct types of setae in several genera.  For example, spiders of the Anzacia genus have squamous setae with brachia, or branches, close to the root; and the spiders of the Berlandina genus have plumose setae with flattened brachia from the bottom to top of the stem.

Several of the species that the research team looked at had never before been described in terms of their setae.

The judges quizzed the young researher on her research and came away very impressed.  “It was nice to receive the recognition,” said Amanda, who received the first prize in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, in the undergraduate section.

Dr. Zakharov said he was a little surprised over the attention the research received.  “We are involved in traditional research that focuses on anatomy and physiology,” he said.  “It is not a hot topic like DNA, but it is nice to know that many people are interested in basic, fundamental research.”

He went on the say, “The research on the ground spider is very important because they are one of the most diverse and numerous groups, and they play a very significant role in the ecosystem.”

Amanda noted that they plan on continuing the long research process with the hope of examining the 122 genera in the family.  “In another year we hope to be able to construct the complete phylogenic tree of the ghaphosid genera,” she said.

While the 27-year old is examining setae, she will be taking the pre-requisite science courses required for admission to a physician assistance program.  When Amanda enrolled at LaGuardia in the fall of 2013 she already had a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan and a MPH in Epidemiology from Columbia University.

After graduating from Columbia, she landed a job as a research coordinator, but was not happy with where her career path was heading.  “I soon realized that my real passion was clinical work and decided that a physician assistant degree was the right thing to do,” she said.

She said that LaGuardia is helping her prepare for her next academic move. “The courses are rigorous and I love my professors,” she said.  “And the research has been an added plus.”

“Amanda has discovered that LaGuardia is not only an institution that can provide her a challenging academic experience that will fully prepare her for any physician assistant program she enters,” said Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia,” but  it is also enriching her experience with serious research that she would not find at another community college.”

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About LaGuardia Community College:

LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit to learn more.

About Sigma Xi:

Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society is a non-profit membership society of nearly 60,000 scientists and engineers belonging to more than 500 Sigma Xi chapters at universities and colleges, government laboratories and industry research centers.