Lauren Arrington just wanted to top the other kids’ science fair projects.
But she ended up making a breakthrough that surprised even seasoned, Ph.D.-holding scientists.
Her research showing that venomous, highly invasive lionfish can survive in nearly fresh water was ultimately replicated and expanded upon by ecologists, who cited her in their published, peer-reviewed study on the topic.
Not bad for a 12-year-old.
Craig Layman, an ecology professor at North Carolina State University, called Lauren’s work “one of the most influential sixth-grade science projects ever conducted.” He said it demonstrated something scientists should have done years before.
"Her project was the impetus for us to follow up on the finding and do a more in-depth study," said Layman, who with graduate students from Florida International University had been researching lionfish in the Loxahatchee River. "We were the first paper that published the salinity of the lionfish, and it was all because of what she had done with her science project."
The daughter of two scientists who love the water, Lauren has grown up fishing, snorkeling and loving science. As a little girl, she went to the classes her dad used to teach at the University of Alabama, piping in with questions that impressed him with their insight.
She got the idea for her project after constantly seeing the red and white, garishly decorated lionfish inPalm Beach County waters. She found out from her dad, an ecologist, that they were taking over Florida’s reefs and gobbling up native fish.
"I wanted to do something about them," said Lauren, who is now 13 and lives in Jupiter. "So I was kind of throwing ideas at my dad."
She thought about testing whether a dead lionfish can still hurt people with its venom. That meant finding someone willing to be spined by one, though, and dad wasn’t exactly eager to sign up. So Lauren kept brainstorming and ultimately settled on figuring out the lowest salinity level they could stand.
For two weeks in late 2012, Lauren slowly lowered the salinity in five aquariums occupied by lionfish she and her dad caught in the Indian River Lagoon. They kept another at the regular ocean salinity level as a control.
Ocean water has a salinity of 35 parts per 1,000. Lauren and her dad, who has a doctorate in fish ecology, thought the lionfish would withstand a salinity of 13, no less. But when the water got down to that level, the fish acted like nothing had changed. So Lauren added more fresh water, taking it down to six parts per 1,000.
And the fish were still fine.
"We were completely dumbfounded," said Lauren’s dad, Albrey Arrington, director of the Loxahatchee River District. "We did not expect that at all."
Because the science fair guidelines specified that students would be excluded if animals in their experiments died, they stopped the experiment there and released the lionfish.
Lauren wound up being one of 20 students from The King’s Academy selected to take her project to thePalm Beach County regional science and engineering fair. There, she got third place in the zoology category.
What her project showed is important because it revealed that lionfish are not just a threat to marine ecosystems. They can also move into estuaries, which often act as nurseries for fish. That’s good to know, because they’re more accessible there and easier to get rid of, Lauren’s dad said.
The extension of Lauren’s study, conducted by Layman and his students, was published this year in the Environmental Biology of Fishes. They were able to bring the salinity all the way to zero, finding that lionfish can tolerate a minimum salinity of 5 parts per 1,000 and even withstand pulses of freshwater.
Lauren’s name is mentioned in the acknowledgments section of the research paper.
"Sometimes it takes someone outside of science – or a student – to look at something in a different way," Layman said.
The whole thing made Lauren, who hopes to one day find a job involving marine science and engineering, feel important.
"It was pretty cool," she said.
Not to mention a complete surprise.
"It certainly was not what we expected, not the results and not the outcome," her dad said. "It was true science — we got the unexpected."