“Wait! Don’t kill it, let me see!” I yell to my friend. She’s in the bathroom showering and shrieking in horror at the huge spider descending from the ceiling. Her boyfriend rushes to the scene, ready to stomp on it, but I quickly shoo him away. Even though I’ve never condoned killing spiders, I would have never been the one a year ago to get near the thing. A year ago and the rest of my life before that, I would’ve begged someone else to put the spider outside while cowering in a corner on the opposite side of the room, as far away as possible from the scary bug.
I suppose then, my enrollment in “Spider Biology” my junior year fall was a twisted form of exposure therapy, and a last resort at fulfilling an ESPM (Environmental Science, Policy, and Management) requirement. As I searched for potential ESPM courses in ecology to take, Spider Biology was far from my first choice. I thought that I’d surely have to drop it after one week of subjecting myself to the torture of viewing spiders with my own eyes — spiders viewed not only on a lecture slide, but also under a microscope in a three-hour lab.
Surprisingly, Spider Biology turned out to be my favorite class of the semester. As we learned more about them, I became enthralled by the unexpected beauty of spiders: How, despite their bad rep, spider species are fascinating because of their incredibly diverse behaviors and ecologies. In some species, for instance, the females might eat a male after, or even during, mating. In general, female spiders are much bigger than males. Some male spiders spend their entire lives wandering the earth for a mate, starving themselves until they finally find one, and then die not too long after. Meanwhile, the females simply sit in their webs fattening up and can sometimes go on to live for up to twenty years. Yes, most of my favorite spider facts revolve around their male-female dynamics, but as a female/woman/girl who maybe wishes she could sit in a web eating all day, waiting for a mate to find her, it sounds like an ingenious evolutionary advantage to me.
All of the cool and interesting things I was learning about spiders led me to stick with the class, despite my initial hesitancy. As someone who had been afraid of getting bit by spiders, I was surprised to learn that spider bites are actually very rare. Most people never get spider bites, even though they tend to call them that. Most of the time, their fangs are simply too small to make a mark that big on our skin.
Although I was having fun, it wasn’t an easy class. By the end of the semester, I had to collect and identify fifteen different spider families on my own, extra points for identifying their genera and species. It’s hard to believe, but I’d say that the worst part of the class was having to kill the spiders I collected for the lab. I had to kill spiders by drowning them in ethanol or putting them in my freezer (all my housemates preferred the former). As much as the arachnids still sent chills down my spine, I had an incredibly hard time killing the ones I found.
Before the lab, I would walk around campus with live spiders in clear vials in my backpack. Sometimes, I’d walk all through campus, from class to class, building to building, still carrying around some people’s greatest fears on my back. It sounds bizarre, and it was, but I could not bring myself to kill them. The first time I had to pour ethanol in the vials of the first two spiders I caught, I started crying watching their bodies squirm, trying to climb out of the liquid. Something of an emotional attachment had formed between my science spiders and myself, who had spent the past couple of days with me, sitting in my backpack or in my room. My professor, bless her heart, saw me tearing up and took them downstairs to a freezer so I didn’t have to watch them die.
For the sake of science (and my grade), however, I ended up killing close to twenty-five spiders during the semester. Although difficult at times, I found it to be generally true that the sacrifices made for science sometimes provide invaluable information. After all, if I hadn’t spent a semester obsessed with the collection of spiders, I probably wouldn’t have intervened when my friend’s boyfriend discovered that huge spider in our bathroom last week. Worse, I wouldn’t have been able to notice that she was pregnant. If he had squashed her, hundreds of babies would have exploded out of her abdomen, I’m sure, much to everyone’s dismay.
I can now see a spider, such as the freakishly large one in our bathroom, identify its gender, family, sometimes species, and even, perhaps, her pregnancy status. It felt good taking her, the large wolf spider, into a cup and gently setting her outside, where she will be free to live until birthing her babies and onward. In that moment, I realized my new appreciation for a tiny living being that I probably would’ve never had if it weren’t for a class I found in the Berkeley course directory, desperately searching for an ecology class.
It’s proven even fun for my friends and family now to send me pictures of random spiders and ask me to identify them. I like to believe it’s even given them a new appreciation for the animal too, and hopefully a reservation against killing them.
The random facts I could write about spiders could go on forever, but the key takeaway is that, because of my major, I have been able to explore classes like Spider Biology, learn about the ecology of grasslands in California, take a Sociology of Agriculture course and study Supreme Court cases for a Legal Studies class simultaneously.
It’s rare to be able to look back on something without a single regret. But during my first day of classes of my senior year, I had an incredible realization: I have actually enjoyed every single course I’ve taken over my four years at Berkeley. A wave of gratitude washed over me; I knew this was a rare feeling to have as a student. Sure, I’ve complained my fair share about this class or that assignment, but I found myself unable to regret any one of my past courses.
I feel incredibly lucky that I applied to Berkeley to the major I did and that I saw it through. But when I applied to Berkeley to major in Conservation and Resource Studies (CRS), I actually had little idea what the program was designed for. To be honest, I even felt a little embarrassed about it because hardly anyone else had heard about my major. Even now, I still hesitate to tell people outside of Berkeley the name of my major, usually opting for “Environmental Science” or, when feeling bold, “Conservation and Resource Studies…it’s like Environmental Science.” I just assume that most people don’t or didn’t go to a university with a CRS major. Going into my sophomore year, I looked into other departments, but nothing fit. Still, I thought I needed to double major in something people would understand or respect more. Not only did other people not necessarily understand my major, but in the beginning, I felt like I didn’t either.
At Berkeley, the CRS major is interdisciplinary, which means that students can take courses across multiple departments. Because of its flexibility and breadth, students can select their own concentration to design their own, unique major pathway. With such an open curriculum and so few restrictions, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of choosing my own classes. I felt like I needed more structure, a major more like the ones many of my friends were taking in STEM-related fields, which would tell me exactly what classes to take and when to take them.
That, however, would prove to be the last thing I wanted. When I met with my major advisor during my sophomore year, I learned that most students shouldn’t necessarily want to be confined and restricted to a course list. The flexibility of a program like CRS allows students the space to self-design their curriculum with classes that interest them, no matter the department. And in the end, my major advisor was right — I found that the flexibility of my major has been an important part of finding myself in college. In my self-designed concentrations of Environmental Law and Ecosystem Ecology, I’ve been able to explore a vast variety of classes I otherwise would’ve never taken. I thank my major advisor every day for helping me realize my sophomore year that CRS, a single major, is enough.
Being a Conservation and Resource Studies major has given me new ways of seeing and noticing the environment around me. Not only can I identify and appreciate new intricacies of nature, but I can share them with my friends. I can see my friends beginning to share in my excitement and curiosity about weird things like what type of spider web is on a tree, or where the cartons of chicken eggs come from, or how those chickens are treated — facts I never would have known had it not been for my classes.
I find it hard to be passionate about subjects without first experiencing them hands-on. Of course, I’ve had times where I’ve questioned what I want to do and who I want to be. It’s easy to say you’re an Environmentalist, but not care about where your Amazon shirt came from, or say you’re an Animal Lover, but kill every spider in your wake. Very rarely do we get the opportunity to explore these topics in-depth and up close to a point that changes how we think about what we do.
Who knows what path I would’ve taken and how unhappy I would’ve been had I switched majors my sophomore year. The chances of burnout in college are quite high. As I watched my friends switch from major to major to reignite any lingering sense of passion or purpose, I can’t help but feel extraordinarily grateful for the opportunities I have been afforded by being able to essentially explore multiple disciplines under one degree. Sticking with my major has shown me that it’s been critical to my personal growth to pursue questions that piqued my curiosity, rather than be unfulfilled and lost as a senior.
The possibilities are endless, and while I am not advertising for everyone unsure of what to study to take up CRS (though maybe not a bad idea) I think, four years later, it was so much better for me to study something open-ended or unstructured than to force myself into a box because it seemed like it’s what I needed to do to be successful at Berkeley. And even if it might turn out to be unnecessary for what I want to do with my career later on, I can sleep better at night knowing the spider on my ceiling can’t actually harm me and is quietly just building its web trying to survive like the rest of us.