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Story last updated at 9:04 a.m. Sunday, May 4, 2003

Dad's spider hobby has positive spin
Of The Post and Courier Staff

At first, Dr. Frank Starmer's kids thought his spider watching was just another eccentric hobby for their goofy dad. He named the spider Natasha because her fluid, graceful moves reminded him of a Russian ballerina. He photographed and videotaped her. Natasha was smart, he noticed. She reconstructed half of her 10-foot-long web daily to have a fresh trap for her prey.

Starmer followed the life of Natasha in his garden for two months. She vanished after a wind storm, but she lives on in a Web page created by Starmer, "Our Golden Silk or Banana Spider." The Web site caught the eye of an associate producer for a special on the Discovery Channel. As a result, Natasha appears in "Kapow! Superhero Science" at 9 p.m. today.

"My kids are excited about it because they've got inarguably the goofiest dad that any kid has ever had. They're all grown now but I'm still just as goofy as I've always been. So they look at this and say, 'Oh, that's just Dad off doing goofy stuff.' But then when the Discovery Channel grabbed hold of it, they said, 'Well, maybe Dad's goofiness sometimes has a positive spin on it,' " said Starmer, associate provost for information technology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Natasha appeared one day last September in the garden of Starmer's Ashley Avenue home. She spun a 3-foot-wide web. "Every morning for two months I'd walk by there and if she was doing something interesting, I'd either take some still pictures or some video," he said. He did the same thing in the evening.

"I thought she'd be there a day or two and that was it. But she stayed there," he said.

He's received e-mail from K-12 teachers around the country who used his Web site in the classroom. During her stay in the Starmer garden, Natasha became part of the neighborhood. "Everybody in our little neighborhood knew she was there. And everybody came out and watched. And it was not the usual experience you expect from people when they see a spider. Usually, they just want to smush it," he said.

Gloria Morris, an associate producer for "Kapow! Superhero Science," discovered Starmer's Web page about Natasha while doing an Internet search on banana spiders. "I contacted him and said, 'Wow, this looks really cool. It's the exact type of spider that we're talking about in the show,' " Morris said.

Morris said the show combines comic-book superheroes with super science. For instance, the story of Spiderman leads to an examination of spider silk as a new superfiber stronger than steel. Natasha begins the hourlong special and appears in the program for about a minute, Morris said.

"Hopefully, the show will attract kids interested in taking a different look at science," she said.

A storm blew up in early November, and Natasha disappeared. It was the end of Starmer's time with her. But the spider lives on at the Web site devoted to her at monitor.admin. 2002/ index.shtml.

"It was fun. Psychologically, it had an interesting effect. Today, when I walk across the street to work I look for where her web was and, of course, there's nothing there. If you ask anybody else what they see they don't see anything, but what I see is the absence of a web."

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