Published: September 13, 2004
Among UT’s best-kept secrets is a former Tampa Bay Hotel wine storage room
immediately behind the north end of the Plant Hall science wing. With its stout,
round construction, the east side of the old red brick structure resembles a gun
turret, only with the “guns” pointing inward. But these guns, in fact, are the
remains of murky emerald wine bottles inserted as decorations along the
To the west side, the building’s wooden exterior, with its dingy,
discolored windows and padlocked plywood doors, give it the appearance of a
storage shed, which no doubt most students, faculty, staff and visitors assume
it is. As if only to further cloak reality, a gray marble monument at the base
of the sidewalk skirting the west side is dedicated to, of all things, the study
But inside, the little building that looks from the outside
as though its most animated occupant might be a lawn tractor is teeming with
unexpected life. In fact, there may be more life within these aged walls than
there is in any of the sleek, state-of-the-art rooms that exponentially dominate
the University’s campus.
Katie Rice and Josh Moore are parts of that life. They
help Rice’s father, Dr. Stan Rice, collect and maintain populations of marine
polydora. Because they work with living organisms that have to be fed and kept
in a carefully regulated environment, attention to the biology professor’s lab
is a matter of daily necessity. Contrary to most perceptions of what that means
in terms of number, the reality is seven, rather than five.
The study has
become part of the life work of Dr. Rice, who carries on, funded by various
organizations, in what has grown to be a 31-year quest to unravel the genetic
mystery of marine polychaetes, minute seagoing worms that by all appearances are
a single species, but present enough regional genetic disparity to render them
incompatible for reproduction between regions. They are the only creatures known
to present this odd dichotomy. (See story, Fall 2003 Journal, page
In the lab, Rice is continuing to attempt to cross worms from local
waters with worms from elsewhere that appear to be identical in every detail,
even when studied at length through an electron micrograph.
“We can cross
a worm from Tampa Bay with a worm that looks absolutely identical from Maine,”
Dr. Rice says, “and they will not produce any fertile eggs, any viable larvae.
They’re absolutely reproductively isolated, which in the biological definition
of ‘species’ would suggest that they’re different species. But there’s no way to
tell them apart—they’re absolutely identical.
“It would be like having a
clone of you that was actually a different species. And no matter how deeply we
looked at you and quantified the number of hairs on your chin and everything
else, we wouldn’t be able to tell you from this clone that was a different
“The question is, how is it that these species have become so
distinct and so different reproductively without changing their morphology? We
normally think of morphology as being quite variable between species. For
example, the domestic dog: If you look at a Chihuahua and a Great Dane, they
look kind of different, but they’re really the same species, and they’re capable
of interbreeding. And if you were to sequence their genes, you would find that
there’s very little—maybe one percent—difference.”
Life Takes No Holidays
Katie Rice began
helping in her father’s lab in the summer of 2003, when she first enrolled at
the University. The sophomore is an art major who is minoring in
“I’ve been around science and science-related things most of my
life,” she says, “and it’s really fun—it really is. And it’s really nice to be
able to come in before class or after class, and feed the worms. It’s a very
low-stress job, and that’s really good, because college is a little bit
stressful sometimes,” she says with a relaxing laugh.
appreciates the location, she says, as well as the casual attire. She doesn’t
have to concern herself with changing clothes or fulfilling a regimented
schedule, so even though she has to be in the lab almost every day at some point
(occasional tradeoffs can be arranged for a free day here and there), it can be
whenever she likes. It’s a short stroll to and from work, and whatever she’s
wearing is fine.
So, she says, working in her dad’s lab has something of
the feel of a hobby, only more serious, and she does get paid a modest income
through Dr. Rice’s project grant money.
“It’s not the same kind of
responsibility [as a more commonplace job], but it really is just as much
[responsibility],” she says. “I mean, I don’t have to make sure that any
customers are happy, but I have to make sure that these worms stay
That involves, among other things, maintaining healthy
environments for the watery little critters.
“We have to keep the salinity
at 25 parts per thousand,” is the example she offers. That responsibility
applies to holidays as much as it does to weekends.
“I don’t get Martin
Luther King Day off, because I still have to come in and make sure everybody’s
OK, but that’s all right.”
“We go through tons of culture water,” the
elder Rice says by way of mentioning the next generation’s duties. “We make our
own food for these worms. We grow phytoplankton, which is essential for the
larvae to survive. There are a lot of things to be done. There’s a lot of stuff
to do every day.
“It’s really to the point that we need a third student
to take care of some of these cultures.”
Rice and daughter give the
thought instant credence with a brief segue into whether an acquaintance of hers
should come in to talk with Dr. Rice about that third opening. The old wine room
that became the little lab that could might soon be a bit more crowded. And
after all, there might as well be another playmate for Dr. Rice’s lab pet, a
brown widow spider named Beth, with whom Josh Moore and Katie Rice don’t seem
inclined to play.
The work’s not hard,” Dr. Rice says, reasserting the topic. “It’s just
tedious. And when you’re working with live animals, you can’t say, ‘Well, I’m
not going to do it today.’ If you don’t do your job, you get yelled at,” he adds
with a lighthearted twinkle, eliciting laughter from his
Feeding the entire collection takes a minimum of four hours,
he estimates, but with other concerns like checking females for eggs, feeding is
rarely, if ever, a straight shot. Instead, the process is worked in in the midst
of orchestrating other processes, and the end of one cycle generally positions
itself against the beginning of another.
“It’s like mowing your lawn in
the summertime,” Dr. Rice says. “As soon as you’ve finished, it’s time to start
Painstaking care must be exercised to keep the various species
“These worms are absolutely identical,” he reminds. “If you get
them mixed up, you’re out of luck. Once they’re mixed, there’s no way you can
tell who’s who. So, you can’t just go into auto mode when you’re working in
here. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing. A lot of these populations
came to us from places where it would be hard for us to re-establish
The collection comes from waters as far off as New Zealand and
Nova Scotia. With others, effort supplants distance as the primary concern. The
specimens from the Florida panhandle, he says, were gathered through a worm and
information trade with Florida State University.
“Every now and then,”
Dr. Rice continues, “we have things pop up in the cultures, like rotifers that
may eat all of our algae, and then the algae crashes, and we have to restart.
There are ciliates and other contaminants that can get into the supply.
Sometimes nematodes get into the food supply. So, there are all kinds of things
that can go wrong if you’re not vigilant.”
He relates a lab horror story
from years ago, when a student lab worker accidentally introduced brine shrimp
into a population of polydora larvae.
“I kept asking him how the cultures
were doing. He said, ‘They’re doing great. They’re really big, and they’ve got
lots of legs.’
“The problem with working with undergraduates,” he
concludes, “is that it takes a long time to train them so that they can
anticipate and identify problems when they come up. Just about the time that
they’re fully competent to work in the lab, they go and graduate. And then,
you’ve got to start all over again.”
That Dr. Rice nevertheless values
undergraduate lab help is evident in its longevity in his study.
undergraduates working in this lab since 1984. A lot of people have come through
here on their way to bigger and better things.”
For Rice and associates,
local trips into the field involve piling into a van and driving to Ft. Desoto
Park at the southern tip of Pinellas County, and collecting vials of
vile-smelling, nutrient-laden mud for growing the algae that becomes food for
water-worm consumption. Such a trek also typically nets 100 gallons of seawater
in 5-1/2-gallon drums.
With her career interests firmly rooted in art,
Katie Rice also is aware of the realities of making a living, so the career
angle is present in her approach to the laboratory work, even though it lacks
the clear impetus it would receive as part of her major.
“I could see
falling back onto something like this. Maybe not this exact project or this
exact location, but I definitely could want to fall back on something like this.
I wouldn’t want to be a telemarketer,” she says with a laugh.
Science in the Long
Josh Moore began assisting Dr.
Rice in the laboratory at the end of the spring 2003 semester. The junior from
the small town of South Peru, IL, majors in what he loves, and what he loves is
marine biology. With his roots in the landlocked upper Midwest, in a town best
identified by “interstate 80 runs right through it,” it took a natural
inclination to spark a love for marine science. He didn’t get a chance to study
much of his favorite subject in high school, either, but he could take plenty of
“I went to a really small high school,” he recalls, “about 400
kids, max. Our whole school had 61 in my graduating class. It was a private
Catholic school, so we didn’t have any [advanced placement] courses or anything
like that, but all the science I could take, I did. I had basically a full
How does a small-town Midwestern boy wind up at UT
instead of Americana University? Well, for Josh Moore, two ways.
science program—I knew I really wanted to get into that, and it’s pretty
The track and cross country teams didn’t hurt, either.
Moore’s sport was running, and any place that offered him that and marine
science in one package piqued his interest immediately. After a bit more
investigation and meeting some of the principals involved, he was hooked on the
place with the minarets.
“My coach, Jarrett Slaven—he really got me
interested. He’s an amazing guy—I really love him as a coach. So, I think I just
put two and two together, and kind of fell in love with it.”
“Josh is one
of our best 1,500-meter runners,” Slaven said. “He’s got a lot of leg
Moore, in fact, held UT’s 1,500-meter school record until
recently, Slaven said. Edged out by a few hundredths of a second, Moore’s
chances of reclaiming the mark are solid. He wants to qualify for the NCAA
finals, and he would not surprise anyone if he made it.
But in the long
run, Moore is thinking science career. In particular, he expresses an interest
in genetics, marine or otherwise, even though he swears to having loved marine
science as a 3-year-old and ever since. But he also says he wants to work
outside, so choices may be limited.
“I don’t know if I can be cooped up
in a lab the rest of my life,” he says.
His next step is graduate school,
he says, and he already has his sights set on Wake Forest University in North
Carolina. He figures a few years in the lucrative pharmaceuticals industry would
make sense after that, while he decides what to settle into
One thing he is certain of is that he has no future in
arachnids. When he met Beth, he put some of that leg speed to practical
“I’m not afraid of anything,” he says, chuckling, palms waving outward
in mock- defensive posture, “except for spiders. I hate spiders. I saw it
[Beth], and I, ah, kind of ran away.”
“It gets complicated,” Dr. Rice
says of his chores. “But with Katie and Josh helping out, we’ve gotten our
momentum going, and kept it going this semester. A lot of times, we get it going
over the summer, and everything is fine, but when classes start, everybody is
too frazzled to spend time in the lab, and things fall apart. But we’ve kept our
momentum going this year. They’re real reliable. It’s good to have them.”