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Sixth-grader’s science project on venomous lionfish spawns fierce fight over scientific credit

The national media couldn’t get enough of the inspiring story of a young Loxahatchee girl’s science fair project on invasive lionfish, billing it as “breakthrough” research that had stunned scientists.

Well, that last part was right. At least one scientist wound up stunned — a former Florida International University doctoral student who contends Lauren Arrington’s project on how much fresh water the oceangoing fish can withstand was largely based on his earlier work.

Zachary Jud muddied the waters over her work via his Facebook page, where he told colleagues that his name and groundbreaking finding has been lost amid splashy reports of the young science star:

“My lionfish research is going viral ... but my name has been intentionally left out of the stories, replaced by the name of the 12-year-old daughter of my former supervisor's best friend.’’

In Internet statements and interviews, Arrington’s father and Jud’s former supervisor at FIU largely blamed the media for blowing her achievements out of proportion and omitting Jud’s proper credit.

Arrington’s sixth-grade project for King’s Academy in West Palm Beach exposed the lionfish, a native of the Pacific that has invaded South Florida and other Atlantic Ocean waters, to increasingly smaller amounts of salt. The test was intended to determine whether the damaging fish might make its way into Florida’s brackish rivers and estuaries. Her fish survived in water that was nearly fresh.

Her 2012 work wound up in third-place by the assessment of the Palm Beach County Regional Science Fair’s voting board but her findings on a high-profile fish earned some local news stories. Those were quickly picked up and expanded on by national media. Her “breakthrough” discovery was touted on CBS, NBC, NPR, and in newspapers from USA Today to the Washington Post, as well as in journals like The Scientist.

In interviews, she credited her dad, Albrey Arrington, executive director of the Loxahatchee River District, where the fish have been found, with helping her out on the project.

But on Monday, Jud posed a Facebook question to colleagues about how to handle what he saw as a snub: “The little girl did a science fair project based on my PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED DISCOVERY of lionfish living in low-salinity estuarine habitats.”

Jud’s “former supervisor” at FIU is Craig Layman, now an associate professor in ecology at North Carolina State University. The pair worked together at FIU from the of 2008 until 2013 when Layman was his academic adviser. Jud earned his PhD at FIU in April and has published six papers with Layman, “with a bunch more in the publication pipeline,” Layman wrote on his blog, Abaco Scientist.

Jud’s 2010 discovery of lionfish’s intrusion along the shoreline of the Loxahatchee River estuary near Jupiter was published in a 2011 Aquatic Biology paper. A year later, in Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, Jud and Layman reported findings from a 10-month mark-recapture study that documented the occurrence of lionfish in water as low as 8 parts per thousand of salinity — far below the 25 parts per thousand accepted minimum.

Lauren’s 2013 science fair project followed that work with testing in an aquarium. It proved the fish in a tank could survive in salt levels even lower than Jud found, at 6 parts per thousand, which almost equates to fresh water.

Jud has contended that Layman and Arrington, a former scientist, are friends who bonded at graduate school at Texas A&M.

In an article in The Scientist, Arrington acknowledged that his daughter had read Jud’s 2011 paper and had attended public lectures given by Jud and Layman on the results. “Lauren cited the 2011 Jud et al. paper in her science fair report and display — so she adequately provided credit to the authors,” Arrington wrote in an email to The Scientist.

But that credit wound up lost in most mainstream media accounts of her work.

Jud and Arrington did not reply to interview requests. Layman responded by sending the Herald a timeline of events on his blog.

After the science fair, Layman said he discussed further explorations on lionfish’s salinity tolerance with Lauren and her father. He said she deserved credit for expanding knowledge on the tolerance of a species that threatens native fish.

“At this point, to my knowledge, there had been no published accounts of this salinity tolerance in lionfish. So Lauren had made a contribution to science,” he wrote on his blog. It was a “ laboratory manipulation that explored’’ what he and Jud found in the field.

He said he and her father has asked if she wanted to take part in a more rigorous, publishable study but she declined, “not all that surprising for her age.’’

But Layman said he and Jud were game to conduct field studies and brought University of Miami undergrad Patrick Nichols in to head the field portion of the research in the summer of 2013. Jud led the study and the first authorized paper went into publication in February this year in Environmental Biology of Fishes. The hardy fish survived the 6 parts per thousand salinity test in the field. Lauren’s work was cited in the team’s 2014 paper.

“We acknowledge her here because her project was part of the information that led to the experimental design in this paper,” Layman wrote on his blog.

Jud, in his Facebook post, said he felt his work was drowned out by feel-good story.

“At this stage in my career, this type of national exposure would be invaluable … if only my name was included in the stories. I feel like my hands are tied. Anything I say will come off as an attempt to steal a little girl's thunder, but it's unethical for her and her father to continue to claim the discovery of lionfish in estuaries as her own.”

In an email Arrington sent to Jud, printed in The Scientist, Arrington wrote, “We have mentioned you frequently in nearly all interviews … I trust you understand reporters typically make the call on how to build the story to maximize interest.”

Layman also blamed the media for the misunderstanding.

“It is my opinion that this story has been blown out of proportion.. A young student did a really cool science project. It related closely to, and facilitated, a bunch of other important findings about lionfish. I am glad tens of thousands of people now know about Zack’s research and Lauren’s project that never would have otherwise. But it is unfortunate how it played out in such a manner over the last few weeks.”

This story was originally published July 24, 2014 8:19 PM.

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