The Columns

Science, Society and the Arts Presents: Andrew Mah ‘18 Meet Andrew Mah ‘18, an accomplished mathematician who found an unlikely passion – spiders!

— by on March 17th, 2017

“SSA is important because it brings together everyone from every major and field. This is an amazing opportunity to experience other majors.”

Meet Andrew Mah ‘18, an accomplished mathematician who found an unlikely passion – spiders!

Science, Society, and the Arts is a multi-disciplinary conference where Washington and Lee undergraduates and law students present their academic achievements before an audience of their peers and the faculty. Through the conference, students, faculty and staff alike have the opportunity to explore new topics and discuss new ideas. Conference participants share their work via oral presentations, traditional academic conference-style panels, poster sessions, artistic shows, creative performances, or various other methods.

Even though SSA has ended, you can still enjoy these stories about the many interesting projects and performances being presented by the students.

Do RTA-clade spiders possess the same suite of silk genes as orb-web weaving spiders?


Q. Can you describe your project?

We are working to investigate the evolution of web design in spiders. The orb web, the archetypal wagon-wheel web design, was thought to be the pinnacle of web design. However, recent evidence suggests that some spiders are moving away from the orb web, or abandoning web construction altogether. These analyses, though, were based on research that heavily sampled one spider group specifically. We are working to sample more underrepresented groups so that we can add to our knowledge of the silk systems of more understudied spider groups. We hope that this should further our understanding of spider silk systems and how they have evolved over time.

Q. What about the topic made you explore it?

The idea that we can look at gene sequences now to understand events that happened millions of years ago is amazing! And spider silk is so interesting, as well. It has a tensile strength stronger than Kevlar and steel.

Q. What was the most interesting thing you have learned while working on this project?

Spiders can produce up to seven functionally distinct types of silk, each of which has unique biochemical and physical properties.

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Understanding the nuances of this project requires a pretty solid understanding of genetics and evolution. However, I started this project as a First-Year having never taken genetics. So the scramble to learn enough to actually understand the project was a huge struggle.

Q. What insight – or insights – did you gain during the research period?

I’ve learned how to think more scientifically and how to handle setbacks.

Q. What is your favorite part of creating, researching, or developing this project?

This project topic was something I got to choose myself, so I’m really in love with that. Research-wise, I’m so excited to finally have some results to share!

Q. What does SSA mean to you?

It means coming together to share all of our accomplishments, whether in the sciences or humanities. It’s about sharing and even more, celebrating the work that’s been done on campus.

Q. Why is SSA – considering science, society, and arts together – important to this campus?

It’s important because it brings together everyone from every major and field. So often, we get sucked into just our majors and people in similar majors. This is an amazing opportunity to break out of this and experience other majors.

Do you know an exceptional student? Someone passionate?
Someone involved? Do you want to see their face on a My W&L profile? Why not nominate them?