Celebrating 100 Years
Mary Rice and the Creation of the 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
- 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.
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