It was on a nighttime walk in Mississippi that Michael Pashkevich fell in love.
His beloved was beautiful as she gently touched his arm: a slender body, long legs — all eight of them.
The object of the Mandeville native's affection was a Nephila clavipes, better known as a golden orb weaver spider.
Pashkevich's biology professor at Loyola, Aimée Thomas, introduced the pair. Pashkevich was already a biology major, but that experience with the golden orb weaver gave focus to his mind: He wanted to study spiders.
That love has helped secure for Pashkevich, who will graduate in May, one of the most prestigious scholarships in higher education: a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which will fund his doctoral studies at the famed English university. The scholarship is one of only 95 awarded each year to students around the world; only 36 this year were from the United States.
To get the scholarship, Pashkevich had to submit a detailed application, go through a Skype interview with officials at Cambridge and then fly to Washington, D.C., to be interviewed by a panel of selectors. He was notified last month that he had been awarded the scholarship.
Pashkevich is also making the unusual leap from undergraduate research straight into doctoral work. It's a transition that his undergraduate mentor, Thomas, said he is ready for.
"He's done this stuff as an undergrad, which is impressive," she said. "I've never had a student go from a bachelor's to a Ph.D."
Seated in his lab at Loyola, with more than 1,000 white bottles containing the specimens he has collected during his undergraduate research on shelves behind him, Pashkevich talked about what he enjoys about spiders and why he wants to study them.
Spiders, he said, are to be praised for their hardiness and versatility: They are found on every continent save Antarctica and in all kinds of climates and ecosystems.
"And where they are found, they are dominant," he said, noting that they often act as a natural pest control.
During his time at Loyola, Pashkevich researched the impact that deer have on local spider populations, eventually collecting the 1,389 specimens he has in his lab. He also participated in a study-abroad program in Edinburgh, Scotland, which helped fuel a desire to return to Great Britain. Field work in Belize drew his attention to the tropics.
At Cambridge, where he will be a member of Jesus College, he will get to visit both areas. His doctoral research will focus on the impact spiders have on the ecology of palm oil plantations in southeast Asia, he said. He also will examine the effect that the restoration of forests along rivers has on arachnids.
The goal, he said, is learning as much about the often shudder-inducing creatures as he can, so that he can help preserve them.
"When you think about animal conservation, you think about big vertebrates," he said. "But there are a whole host of other animals that need to be preserved, and among them are spiders."