Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes

Mary Esther Rice, born in Washington D.C. in 1926, died on the 29th of April at the age of 94, still part of the board of researchers (Senior Research Scientist Emeritus) of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida. She was an invertebrate zoologist, specialised in the study of the very ‘special’ animals, and director for more than 20 years (1981-2002) of a ‘special’ marine station.

After studying biology in New Jersey and zoology in Ohio (graduate school), Rice began working as a research associate in the department of radiology at Columbia University in 1950. She then obtained a position as a general physiologist at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases in 1953, to later move to a biologist position in the National Cancer Institute in 1955. So far, she was very far away from marine invertebrate research and evolution, which would become her legacy!

Something happened that we don’t know about but can just be happy about, when in 1961, she decided that it was time to pursue a PhD in zoology. That run would take place in Seattle, at the University of Washington (it always surprises me how easy North Americans move about and around their country, from coast to coast, from North to South!), seeking deeper knowledge on the development and phylogeny of Sipunculan worms. Her first research article was on the physiological effects of sodium on yeast and it was published in 1951 while her first Sipunculan paper appeared in 1967. She was already 41 years old and we now recognise her as the Sipunculan taxon authority.

The Sipuncula (peanut worm) is a group of much understudied and misunderstood animals, consisting of around 162 species of bilaterally symmetrical, unsegmented marine worms. And that is special! While traditionally considered a phylum, Sipuncula may be a subgroup of Annelida, based on recent molecular work.

Picture of peanut worms
Two examples of peanut worms found during DIVA-ARTABRIA expedition in Galicia (Spain). Nephasoma sp. and Aspidosiphon muelleri (Diesing 1851) individuals inhabiting empty shells of snails in Galicia (Spain). Photos by Jose Ignacio Saiz Salinas, PiE-UPV/EHU (EMBRC Spain).

Rice’s PhD was completed in 1966 and she was then appointed curator of the collections of the very special, Sipunculan and Echiuran collections of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. And so the history goes, that Rice became a specialist of ‘a special taxon’, devoting her career as a researcher to the study of Sipuncula, their systematics, evolution, development, and reproduction. Few real Sipunculan specialists exist. Jose Ignacio Saiz Salinas in the Plentzia Marine Station (EMBRC Spain) is one of such experts. He had the opportunity to meet Rice in Florida and talks with respect and admiration about her and her gigantic work on this taxon.

The Smithsonian Institution proudly says (and rightly so!) on its website that it is the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world, with nearly 7,000 employees. Like a gigantic matryoshka doll, the Smithsonian is composed of different museums and institutions. One of the museums is the National Museum of Natural History, which it is responsible for the Smithsonian Marine Station. Rice, who was a cornerstone in its founding, became its first Director in 1981, first at Link Port and then starting in 1999 at Fort Pierce. This field station was born with the mission to provide access to scientists and students from the Smithsonian as well as other institutions worldwide wishing to study its surrounding marine ecosystems. Rice was instrumental in the growth of this institution and commanded the development of research laboratories and programmes while securing funding through fellowships for research.

During her career at the Smithsonian, Rice also spent significant time lecturing and mentoring students and was affiliated with several universities as an Adjunct Associate Professor until 2000, starting with the University of Miami (1968-74). Rice was also responsible for the creation of the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystem Exhibit, a county-run facility located opposite the marine station. Their focus in on displaying Floridan marine ecosystems as complex communities of organisms interacting (socialising) in their environment. Outreach is in the DNA of museums, but it is in the RNA of marine stations, it is a mean towards existence!

The last paper co-authored by Rice was published in Journal of Morphology in 2019, when she was already 91-92 years old, with a title that should be read with care: ‘Developmental architecture of the nervous system in Themiste lageniformis (Sipuncula): New evidence from confocal laser scanning microscopy and gene expression’. Working to the last minute and with the most advance techniques available at the moment! Let this be a small tribute of EMBRC in Europe to our ‘sister’ marine station in Fort Pierce and for all of those who loved Mary E. Rice and love those ‘special creatures’!

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February 11 marks the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). This annual celebration aligns with SDG 5 (Gender Equality) in recognising the critical role that women play in science.