Linda Rayor

Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Associate

4130 Comstock
(607) 255-8406

Behavioral ecologist specializing in arthropod social behavior. Inspiring, prize-winning teacher who recognizes the importance of communicating the value of science to the public through outreach and Insectapalooza.

Research Focus

Evolution of sociality must involve adaptive benefits to offset the costs of living closely with competitors, especially among potentially cannibalistic predators such as spiders. These adaptations may involve behavioral, ecological, and physiological strategies for living in groups. There are three social Australian huntsman species (two of which I have discovered) that have evolved social dynamics unlike any other social species known. The huntsman spiders have a world-wide distribution, are a ubiquitous presence in Australia and Latin America, and turn out to have incredibly interesting physiology and behavior. The group has been a gold-mine for research comparing the behavior, whole-organism performance, metabolism, and development of closely related social and solitary species. To better understand the dynamics of these differences, a colleague and I recently published the first molecular phylogeny of the Sparassids. The largest question that my students and I are currently investigating is whether there is a depressed metabolic rate in the social spiders which reduces competition for food and risk of cannibalism compared to the solitary species. This would prove to be a novel physiological mechanism providing an predisposition for sociality.

Outreach and Extension Focus

Studies indicate that formally training undergraduates how to do effective scientific outreach greatly enhances the probability of these students going on to become STEM teachers or to continue to do informal science education that communicates the value of science to the public. Naturalist Outreach Practicum is an innovative, interdisciplinary service-learning course on how to do effective scientific outreach and to organize outreach events (http://blogs.cornell.edu/naturalistoutreach).

As a major portion of their training, the Cornell students in Naturalist Outreach [Entom 3550, 4cr] participate in what is effectively a speakers bureau where teachers request hands-on presentations about understanding nature and environmental biology for their classes. Naturalist Outreach students are reaching students in seven counties in Central NY and neighboring states (NJ, PA). Naturalist Outreach students speak to 2nd grade through middle school classes most frequently, but work with all ages at community events like the NY State Fair and Insectapalooza. Since 1998, Dr. Rayor and her 303 students have spoken to 2362 groups and reached ~98,800 people (classroom presentations= 56,300 people; large outreach events= 42,500 people). Because her service-learning course is so innovative, Dr. Rayor has recently been invited to speak about it at six symposia or universities. She has also just been awarded a NSF-Directorate for Education and Human Resources grant in large part to give a professional development workshop entitled ‘Improving undergraduate education through science outreach’ that will help faculty from other institutions develop similar science outreach courses, programs, or events.
With funding from NYS 4H Dr. Rayor has been producing a series of short ~10-min science content videos about behavior, understanding nature, and biodiversity starring her best students. There are currently 24 videos (YouTube ‘naturalistoutreach’ channel), which feature stunning visuals of the natural world, immersive soundscapes, and compelling biological stories. Linda’s students the students develop extensive educational resources for children and their teachers to supplement their presentations which are posted on the Naturalist Outreach website (http://blogs.cornell.edu/naturalistoutreach). Some of these videos will be highlighted at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival on 12 April 2015.

The Naturalist Outreach program acts as a ‘speakers bureau’ to send Cornell undergraduates and graduate students to local classrooms and community groups to talk about the environmental science. By presenting lively, well-grounded, age-appropriate, science-inquiry based presentations, we help open the world of backyard biology to young people, enrich local 2nd – H.S. science instruction, and simultaneously train Cornell students to communicate effectively about science. The Naturalist Outreach Program is a response to the national need for attracting students into science, for scientists who can communicate the value of their work to the public, and the need to enhance appreciation for the environment.

Insectapalooza. In 2003, I was asked to conceptualize and organize an Insect Fair for the Department of Entomology. In the last 10 years, I have coordinated or co-coordinated the entire event five or six times. In all years, I have organized several of the major events (Arthropod Zoo, all permits for Butterfly House) and assisted in making the event happen in a significant way. Insectapalooza relies on a large number of volunteers, and my lab group and entire Naturalist Outreach course have be volunteers making all of the wall posters, hall way displays, and other significant organizational aspects. I have made certain that Insectapalooza has media coverage and give an average of 4 television or radio interviews every year. My vision for and hard work to make Insectapalooza happen as a major community outreach event which appeals to children and adults speaks for itself. What I am most pleased with and am willing to take credit for is helping to change the departmental culture to one where there is an expectation of participation in community outreach through Insectapalooza.

NYS 4H: I am involved with NYS 4H programing through the development of Naturalist Outreach STEM videos on youtube, and through participating in 4H programatic events such as STARR and Career Explorations. Additionally, have a Cornell University Entomology and Naturalist Outreach table at the NYS Fair for two days every year in the 4H Youth Bureau.

Teaching Focus

Spider Biology [Entom 2150, 2 credits, lecture, taught 22 times since 1994]: My Spider Biology class is one of the few arachnology courses in the world. The course combines diversity and evolution, with emphasis on the behavioral ecology of arachnids. Along with lectures, the course includes diurnal and nocturnal field trips, and two 1.5-day experiential Open Labs with an exceptionally diverse collection of live arachnids. Why is spider biology important to Cornell University and NYS stakeholders? Spiders are of enormous concern to the public, but poorly understood. Students completing this excellent course effectively become specialists who provide useful knowledge to their communities.

Naturalist Outreach Practicum [Entom 3350, now 4 credits, taught Fall 2005 – 2014], is an innovative, interdisciplinary experiential course on how to do effective scientific outreach and to organize outreach events in environmental biology. Additionally, the Naturalist Outreach course runs a large STEM outreach program in which the students engage with elementary and secondary students and teacher communities in seven countries throughout Central NY and neighboring states (NJ, PA). Teaching college students to engage in science outreach empowers them and translates into future STEM teachers and science communicators (Harrison, et al. 2011, Laursen et al. 2012). However, this course is one of the few in the country which specifically teaches college students the necessary skill sets.
The goals of the course are 1) to train the college students to speak about science with passion and clarity, and 2) to provide the ethos to help develop civically engaged outreach leaders of the future. Surveys of former participants indicate that over 41% have gone on to become teachers, taken leadership positions in existing outreach programs, developed their own outreach programs, or redirected their careers into informal science education. As a major portion of their training, the college students participate in what is effectively a speakers bureau and teachers request STEM presentations for their classes. Naturalist Outreach students speak to 2nd grade through middle school classes most frequently, but work with all ages at the Sciencenter and at community events. Since 1998, I and my 303 students have spoken to 2362 groups and reached ~98,500 people (classroom presentations= 56,300 people; large outreach events= 42,500 people). The class counts toward the Communication distribution requirement.

Insect Behavior (3 credits). Insects are the most diverse organisms on earth, with equally diverse behavior. This course introduces the fascinating world of insect behavior at the level of individual sensory mechanisms, information processing, as well as behavioral interactions among insects and their environment. Throughout the course, I have organized each section of the course to combine both more mechanistic, individual perceptual or processing aspects of behavior with a more behavioral ecological or evolutionary approach to behavior. A number of guest speakers talk about their areas of expertise in insect behavior.

Spider Biology [Entom 3150, 3 credits, lecture and lab, taught Fall 2005-2006, 2008-2011, 2013- 2014]: My Spider Biology class is one of the few arachnology courses in the world. The course combines diversity and evolution, with emphasis on the behavioral ecology of arachnids. Along with lectures, the course includes diurnal and nocturnal field trips, and two 1.5-day experiential Open Labs with an exceptionally diverse collection of live arachnids. In addition, the students enrolled in Entom 3150 learn to key out spiders for a synoptic spider collection, compile a class identification manual, and design experiments with live arachnids. The addition of a laboratory component to the class has been well-received by the students and is more popular than the lecture course alone. Why is spider biology important to Cornell University and NYS stakeholders? Spiders are of enormous concern to the public, but poorly understood. Students completing this excellent course effectively become specialists who provide useful knowledge to their communities.

I teach two experiential courses every Fall semester (Spider Biology and Naturalist Outreach Practicum), as well as Insect Behavior intermittently. I have the deserved reputation as an outstanding teacher. My courses provide important contributions to the CALS Biology Curriculum in two important ways: providing diversity training in organismal biology and providing courses with an exceptional component of experiential or service-learning (Spider Biology 215, Spider Biology 315, Naturalist Outreach Practicum, Insect Behavior) that have been productively integrated with my research program. I closely mentor and teach behavioral research skills to a large number of talented undergraduate students in my program. I have won the following teaching awards: the 2007 CALS Innovative Teacher, 2005 Kaplan Family Distinguished Faculty in Service Learning and Entomology Society of America Distinguished Achievement in Teaching Award (Eastern Branch).

Awards and Honors

  • Distinguished Achievement in Teaching, Eastern Branch (2016) Entomology Society of America
  • Alice Cooke House Fellow (2016)
  • Penny Bernstein Distinguished Teacher Award (2015) Animal Behavior Society
  • Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching (2008) Entomology Society of America, Eastern Branch
  • Innovative Teacher Award (2007) Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Selected Publications

Journal Publications

Presentations and Activities

  • Enhancing STEM Curricula and Engaging More Students To Go Into Teaching In Urban Environments Through Science Outreach. NSF-Noyce Summit. July 2016. NSF. Washington DC.
  • How Habitat and Retreat Limitation Influence Sociality in Prolonged Subsocial Huntsman Spiders. International Congress of Arachnology. July 2016. International Society for Arachnology. Golden, Colorado.
  • Physiological bases of sociality in huntsman spiders. International Congress of Arachnology. July 2016. International Society for Arachnology. Golden, Colorado.
  • 1) Why training in science outreach is a valuable approach to improving undergraduate education, and how a civic engagement approach works. 2) How to develop a successful course that trains undergraduate students how to do effective outreach – what works, what doesn’t. 3)How to organize a large community outreach event and training students to generate both displays and quality docents. 4) Expections for students doing outreach. Improving Undergraduate Education Through Science Outreach. October 2015. NSF-funded - Sponsored by Naturalist Outreach Program, Sciencenter, Museum of the Earth. Ithaca, NY.
  • Naturalist Outreach Program: Improving Undergraduate Education Through Science Outreach and Civic Engagement. Improving Undergraduate Education Through Science Outreach. October 2015. NSF-funded - Sponsored by Naturalist Outreach Program, Sciencenter, Museum of the Earth. Ithaca, NY.
  • Plenary Presentation: Social spider behavioral ecology. Behavioral Ecology & Interactions. September 2015. Universidade Federal de Uberlândia (UFU). Uberlandia, Minas Gerais, Brazil.
  • 50 Shades of Arachnids: A Romance with Spiders. Continuing Education Seminar Series, Cornell Univ. July 2015. Continuing Education Seminar Series, Cornell Univ. Cornell University.
  • Social biology and habitat preferences of a group-living rock-dwelling huntsman spider, Delena lapidicola (Sparassidae: Deleninae). Animal Behavior Society Annual meeting. June 2015. Animal Behavior Society. Anchorage, Alaska.
  • 50 Shades of Spiders. Science Cafe. April 2015. Rockville, MD Science Cafe. Rockville, MD.
  • Naturalist Outreach: Motivation for STEM Education and Facilitating early STEM engagement. Terra Science & Education conference on Urban Education. October 2014. Terra Foundation. Syracuse.