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.
Text and imagery courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.