ResearchUNC Charlotte

Charlotte Professor Sarah Stellwagen Is The Real Spider-Woman


Sarah Stellwagen, assistant professor of biological sciences, has loved animals since she was little. “I had all numbers of pets when I was a kid. I had a small parrot at one point, ferrets and bunny rabbits. I had hermit crabs and snakes and I loved them all,” she said.

But it was a spider she spotted as a pre-teen in a pet store that ended up shaping her career.

Stellwagen recalls seeing the spider at age 11 like it was yesterday. “I saw a full-grown spider, and I felt like I just had to have that tarantula. I marched up to my mom and said ‘I’m buying that tarantula with my own money,’ because I had some Christmas money, and the spider was $39.99,” said Stellwagen. Her mother replied as many parents would: They would absolutely not be coming home with a spider for a pet.

She begged, and Stellwagen’s mother eventually caved, so they brought the tarantula — now named Stanley — home. Stellwagen and her mother began their research to learn all about caring for tarantulas and realized that Stanley was a female.

Sadly, a few months later Stanley took a tumble when Stellwagen was handling her. “She died a few days later and my mom — who had learned all about the spider with me and originally said ‘no’ — cried over this big, bumbling spider that she had learned to love too.”

The next time around it was her mother’s idea to get a spider, and for Stellwagen’s 12th birthday she was given a baby tarantula she named Clawdia. Stellwagen later asked her mom why she finally acquiesced to allow a pet spider in their home. “She told me, ‘You can be into all kinds of things that maybe I didn’t approve of, but you wanted a spider and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing to nurture,’” Stellwagen recounted.

Stellwagen’s mother continued to nurture her love of spiders into adulthood. “I didn’t really know that I could study spiders as my job until I got to college, and I had to choose a minor. Entomology and psychology were the two minors that fit into my schedule, and my mom said, ‘You are taking entomology,’ and I was like ‘Alright mom, whatever,’ but I took it, and I was hooked,” said Stellwagen. Her mothers’ intuition was right and entomology turned into Stellwagen’s passion.

She got through her college career with her spider by her side. “I had Clawdia for 17 years, so I had her longer than any other pet. She died just a couple months before I defended my Ph.D. dissertation. The timing was tough, and I sobbed like a baby when she died,” said Stellwagen. “This spider led me down the path of research into spider silk and glue that I am on today, studying it professionally and going to cool places around the world to study these fascinating creatures.”

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