A Passion for Tarantulas

Posted on April 30, 2024
Lance Crawford

Jorjia Elmore data-lightbox='featured'
University of South Alabama biology major Jorjia Elmore holds a tarantula she collected in West Texas for research.

When Jorjia Elmore graduated from Pensacola High School and was planning to enroll at the University of South Alabama, her parents told her to get out of her comfort zone.

She did, studying tarantulas. 

While taking a biology lab as a freshman, her instructor, Dr. Jason Strickland, spoke about some of the research done in his SSSTING Lab, which is short for Snakes, Scorpions, Spiders, Toxins, INformatics and Genomics. The genetic aspect of his research piqued her interest. 

“I reached out to Dr. Strickland about joining the lab,” Elmore said. “Tarantulas were the least scary to me, and nobody had a project with them yet. The first time I ever held one, I was terrified, but after working with them for the last three years I’m numb to it. However, my mom was not very happy that I got out of my comfort zone with venomous animals.” 

Elmore was bitten by the research bug immediately. Her favorite memory is traveling to the West Texas desert to gather the oversized arachnids for study.

“Going to Texas for sample collection was by far the coolest experience I have ever had,” she said. “I never would have thought that going to college would mean that I would get to spend two weeks in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, staying up until 3 a.m. picking up various animals.”

A biology major who plans to graduate in May before attending medical school, Elmore soon realized that her research translated well to her career path.  

“It was extremely beneficial,” she said. “Also, because tarantulas are so understudied, I developed a new technique for venom gland dissection. I’m interested in the surgical field, so it was interesting and fun for me.”

Elmore earned a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a 10-week program where students work on a research project with a mentor. It culminates in either a poster or oral presentation. 

Seeing another opportunity to step out of her comfort zone, Elmore chose to give an oral presentation.

“She was nervous but did it anyway to face her fear of public speaking,” said Strickland, an assistant professor of biology and assistant department chair. “It went well because she practiced it many times and delivered it at an appropriate level for the general audience, even if they had minimal biology knowledge.” 

The presentation went so well that Elmore was selected to go to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Long Beach, California. 

Now, as she nears the end of her undergraduate studies, she is happy she took her parents’ advice.

“Undergraduate research has been an impactful experience,” she said. “I never really saw myself doing or enjoying research, but I ended up discovering that it is something I really enjoy and will hopefully continue in my professional career. I would recommend to anyone to get involved in research to some extent, even if you don't think you’re interested.”

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