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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Dr. Mary Rice holds a worm-like marine animal called a sipunculan, a sand-burrowing species. In the background are pictures of oceanic larvae. Credit: Photo by Tom Smoyer; image courtesy of Smithsonian Marine Station
Dr. Mary Rice holds a sand-burrowing species of a worm-like marine animal called a sipunculan. In the background are pictures of oceanic larvae of sipunculans. Credit: Photo by Tom Smoyer; image courtesy of Smithsonian Marine Station

Dr. Mary E. Rice came to the Smithsonian in 1966, soon after the completion of her PhD in zoology at the University of Washington, to work in the Division of Worms, part of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the National Museum of Natural History. She was in charge of curating the sipunculan and echiuran collections. Sipunculans and echiurans are primitive, unsegmented worm-like marine animals that typically live in burrows of sand or mud, or in rock or coral crevices. They are found in all the world’s oceans from shallow waters to abyssal depths. Rice has devoted her career to the study of sipunculans, an important but little-known marine group, focusing her research on their evolution and development. Her research interests have extended further to include the larger field of life histories of marine organisms.

Rice grew up on a farm outside of Washington, D.C., in southern Maryland, where she was surrounded by nature—including cows, chickens, horses, cats, dogs, and other animals. She received her first microscope at a very young age, and even before high school she had decided she would be a biologist. She matriculated at Drew University in New Jersey in 1943, where she was part of the first class of women. During summers she received scholarships to study marine biology at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. After obtaining an M.A. degree in zoology at Oberlin College, she returned to Drew to teach for a year, followed by two years as a research associate at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. The death of her father in 1952 brought her back home to the D.C. area, where she worked at the National Institutes of Health in cancer and toxicology research. She eventually left the NIH to pursue a Ph.D. in marine biology at the University of Washington, gaining more field and research experience at the Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island.

Rice began her career at a time when marine biology was growing rapidly, both intellectually and institutionally. Because her research program focused on the reproduction and development of sipunculans, she found it necessary to conduct her studies in the field during the periods when the animals were reproductive. During her first years at the Smithsonian in the late 1960s, she took part in a cruise of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution between Bermuda and Woods Hole, and began the study of oceanic larvae.  She also traveled to laboratories in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, Barbados, the Netherlands Antilles, Bimini, and Venezuela.

In 1971 she transferred to Florida, to the Rosenstiel School in Miami as part of a one-year exchange agreement, to work on the oogenesis (the creation of an egg or ovum cell) of local sipunculans. The Smithsonian at that time was in the process of developing a new marine science program near Fort Pierce, Florida.  Rice had decided that to carry out her research of rearing larvae, studying their development, and determining their relationship to adult forms, she needed a permanent lab site near their natural environment. The proposed marine program presented the perfect opportunity for Rice to develop a permanent marine lab for her work and that of colleagues.  Her work on evolution and development foreshadowed the new field of "evo-devo" -- evolutionary developmental biology.

In 1972, Rice became the resident scientist and later first director of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Link Port (the name later was changed to the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce). The program she created provided support for visiting scientists and fellowships for graduate and postdoctoral students entering the field. Under Rice’s leadership the Smithsonian Marine Station was relocated in 1999, from a renovated laboratory/barge docked at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution to a new facility on recently acquired property nearby on the Fort Pierce Inlet. Rice established basic laboratory resources for histology, a seawater system, and incorporated new technologies, such as the scanning electron microscope, confocal laser scanning microscope, and DNA analysis, ensuring that the Smithsonian Marine Station had a state of the art array of resources for visiting and resident scientists. The research that has been conducted at the station has resulted in over 830 scientific publications, and Rice and her colleagues have done much to foster and train the next generation of marine scientists.

Rice was also instrumental in the creation of the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystem Exhibit. She worked with local officials to develop the St. Lucie County Marine Center, a county-run facility where the exhibit is housed. Located opposite the Smithsonian Marine Station,  the exhibit has as its focal point an enormous 3,300-gallon coral reef aquarium that was for many years on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C

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LINKS:

  • Take a virtual tour, with two underwater webcams, of the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystem Exhibit.
  • Read an article written about Mary Rice in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology’s newsletter “No Bones,” in October 2002, at the time of her retirement after 36 years with the National Museum of Natural History.

Images

Mary Rice, seated at the microscope, with her assistant Hugh Reichardt, at the Smithsonian Marine Station at Link Port in 1988. Reichardt is breaking up pieces of dead coral in search of sipunculans (unsegmented worm-like marine animals)—which live in such habitats after metamorphosing from larval stages. Credit: Photo by Eric Long, Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Marine Station’s floating laboratory/barge at Link Port.  The barge, docked at the campus of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, was the primary laboratory facility of the Smithsonian Marine Station from 1980 to 1999. Credit: Photo by Eric Long, Smithsonian Institution.
Mary Rice in front of the Smithsonian Marine Station’s floating lab at Link Port on the Indian River Lagoon in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 1984. Credit: Photo by Dane Penland, Smithsonian Institution. Mary Rice, at center, stands in the Secretary’s parlor in the Castle building, together with the individuals involved in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in 1994 prior to the relocation of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Link Port from the campus of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution to a new site on the Fort Pierce Inlet. From left, David Pawson, Acting Director of the National Museum of Natural History; Richard Herman, President, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution; J. Seward Johnson Jr., Chairman of the Board and CEO, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution; the Secretary of the Smithsonian Robert McCormick Adams; and Assistant Secretary for Science Robert Hoffmann.  Credit: Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Aerial view of the newly established campus of the Smithsonian Marine Station on the Fort Pierce Inlet in 1999, showing the laboratory building and the residence for visiting scientists  (Tyson House). Also visible is the site of the future Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit.  Credit: Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Marine Station. The Laboratory and Administration Building of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, on the Fort Pierce Inlet, 1999. Credit: Photo by Julie Piraino, Smithsonian Marine Station.
The Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit, located opposite the Smithsonian Marine Station, was established in 2001 as a collaboration between the Marine Station and Saint Lucie County. Credit: Photo by Julie Piraino, Smithsonian Marine Station.

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