Kaylee Hussey: Wiki-wonder

Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 14, 2023.

The assignment was simple: add information to the Wikipedia page of an invertebrate species, citing two peer-reviewed sources. Somehow, Kaylee Hussey misunderstood the task — and may have found a passion for science communication along the way. 

Hussey grew up in southern Maine. She always loved animals and knew she wanted to study wildlife ecology at the University of Maine when she arrived.

“The only thing I could see myself doing was working outside and working with animals,” Hussey says. “I like learning about ecology in general, and how systems are connected, and how different systems affect one another. It’s given me a lot of opportunities and I really like the faculty in the department.”

Despite her affection for creatures big and small, Hussey developed a fear of spiders in her teens. This was out of character; as a kid, she admits to rounding up spiders from her yard into a bucket and gently coloring them with pink chalk, undaunted by arachnophobia. 

In Invertebrate Biology class last semester with Erin Grey, professor of aquatic genetics, Hussey found the perfect assignment to face her fears: editing the Wikipedia page of an invertebrate of her choosing.

Grey found the assignment through Wiki Education, a program available to college and university instructors across the U.S. and Canada to assign students to write Wikipedia articles guided by online tutorials. Though Wiki Education modules had been used by UMaine professors before, it was Grey’s first experience with the program. 

“It was kind of a test run for me,” Grey says. “It was a really nice way for me to gauge that students were really understanding the content because they were able to write it in their own words for a general audience. It’s nice to know the students’ hard work will live on past the class. There are so few Wikipedia pages for invertebrate species there really is a lot that students can do. It wasn’t hard to find Wikipedia pages that needed editing.”

Hussey chose the bold jumping spider Wikipedia page and dove right in. She spent hours reading dozens of research papers on jumping spiders, synthesizing the information and distilling it to add to the page. 

“I got lost in it,” Hussey says. “The beginning article was very simple. I think there were a couple sections, which didn’t include more than a sentence of information. It didn’t include anything about their life history or reproduction. One of the biggest gaps was on vision: it mentioned that they have excellent vision, but they didn’t expand on that, and it’s probably one of the most notable things about the spider.”

Instead of updating the page with two sources — like Grey’s assignment required — Hussey cited 20 peer-reviewed papers in the updated version of the page. 

Hussey first realized that she had made a mistake on the presentation day for the assignment. 

“I knew I had gone a little above and beyond, but then I saw people presenting and I was like, ‘Oh, I really gave this a lot of effort,’” Hussey says. “I said, ‘I misunderstood,’ and everybody was laughing.”

“Thankfully she didn’t go first,” Grey laughs. “That would have been really awkward for everyone else who followed. All the students did a good job, but when Kaylee [Hussey] got up there, we were all very impressed.”

Meanwhile, Cassidy Villeneuve, communications and marketing coordinator for Wiki Education, noticed that the jumping spider page was getting many more views than a page of its kind usually does — on average, about 300 a day, with a total of 34,000 views since Kaylee had finished her edits, which, Villeneuve says, “is pretty big for a page about an invertebrate species.” Looking into it further, Villeneuve realized that the changes attracting new readers were all made by a student through the Wiki Education program. 

Inspired, Villeneuve reached out to Grey for Hussey’s contact information in order to interview and feature her on Wiki Education’s blog.

“I love pulling examples that speak to this bigger impact that a student can make, thinking about how people are going to use this information in their life,” Villeneuve says. “Kaylee [Hussey] wanted to inspire more of an appreciation for the natural world so maybe by reading more about this particular spider, people will give it a second thought before killing them. Students are in a great position to do this kind of science communication because they have access to scholarly sources and they remember what it was like learning about these complex topics for the first time. They might just change a few readers’ minds.”

For Hussey, though, editing the page was about more than just generating goodwill for the jumping spider. Wikipedia is a powerful tool for providing accessible information to the world. Hussey has experienced the need for such tools in her own life. 

“I am a first-generation student. I never had around-the-dinner-table conversations about science,” Hussey says. “I think it’s important for somebody to be able to Google something and be able to read something that’s accurate.”

Hussey, who completed her coursework for the wildlife ecology degree in December and will graduate in May, also says that rewriting the experience has opened her eyes to what she is capable of in terms of communicating about science.

“I am actually looking for a job right now doing something like that,” Hussey says. “I think that it’s the biggest gap in science. People want to learn about this stuff, but it can be challenging if you don’t know how to read a scientific paper. I think it’s important that somebody who is familiar with the research makes sure the information is correct.”

Still, as far as her own arachnophobia goes, spending so much time learning about the jumping spider has made her a veritable fan. 

“Now I watch videos of them doing their mating dance,” Hussey says. “They’re very cute. They’re kind of clever. It made me appreciate them more.”

Contact: Sam Schipani, samantha.schipani@maine.edu