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The ‘breakthrough’ sixth-grade science project at the center of a fight over scientific glory

Lauren Arrington at her school science fair. (Courtesy Albrey Arrington)
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Thirteen-year-old Lauren Arrington has been busy on the media circuit these past few weeks, doing interview after interview about the sixth-grade science project that landed her in a published scientific paper.

Arrington’s experiment revealed that lionfish — the invasive, venomous species of fish thought to be native to saltwater oceans — could actually survive in nearly freshwater environments, which could potentially damage the marine ecology of estuaries, where salty ocean water and fresh river water mix.

The story went viral. Arrington’s work was featured in science magazines and local newspapers, and word of her “breakthrough” discovery made its way to major news organizations, including NPR, CBS and NBC.

But on Monday, a marine biologist by the name of Zack Jud made an explosive claim: All these stories were based on a “lie,” because Arrington was taking credit for research he’d published three years earlier.

“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,” Jud wrote on Facebook. “The little girl did a science fair project based on my PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED DISCOVERY of lionfish living in low-salinity estuarine habitats. … [M]y years of groundbreaking work on estuarine lionfish are being completely and intentionally ignored.”

He added: “At this stage in my career, this type of national exposure would be invaluable … if only my name was included in the stories.”

According to Jud, who graduated from his doctoral program at the Florida International University this spring,  this controversy can be blamed on “poor parenting” by Arrington’s father, Albrey, a former scientist who is now the executive director of the Loxahatchee River District. The board preserves and manages the river that was the site of Jud’s past experiments; it’s also where Arrington’s daughter, Lauren, based her work.

Now comes the taking of sides between Arrington and Jud.

Science blog io9 publicized Jud’s complaints with a story on Tuesday suggesting that the sixth grader may have “stolen credit” for Jud’s work. The Central Florida Aquarium Society apologized to Jud for having “the wool pulled over their eyes” by publishing a story about Arrington a month ago.

Others have started a petition calling on Jud to make Arrington a co-author of his 2014 study, which looked more closely at the lionfish’s ability to survive in fresh water.

Albrey Arrington, Lauren’s father, had remained publicly silent about Jud’s contentions. But in an interview with The Post on Wednesday, he said that Jud’s claims shocked him. Until a few days ago, he said, he and his daughter and Jud were good friends doing science experiments together.

“When I first kind of told my daughter what was happening, she looked at me honestly with a confused look and said, ‘I thought Dr. Jud and I were friends,'” Arrington said.

It wouldn’t be the first time that scientists have disputed the origins of a discovery. But it could very well be the first time that a 13-year old was caught in the middle.

Raised in a scientific household in Jupiter, Fla., Lauren Arrington first conducted the experiment two years ago when she was in the sixth grade. She attended lectures on lionfish by Jud and his then-academic adviser at FIU, North Carolina State University professor Craig Layman, who is a graduate school friend of her father’s. (Jud contends that Layman and Arrington are “best friends”.) She read and cited in her science fair report Jud’s 2011 paper, which first raised the issue of lionfish being found in estuaries, her father said.

Lauren decided to launch an experiment in which she put lionfish into tanks and lowered the salt levels in each tank. She found that the fish could survive in salt levels of 6 ppt, which is almost fresh water.

According to her father and e-mailed conversations with Jud that Albrey Arrington provided to The Post, Jud communicated with the Arringtons throughout Lauren’s research and was surprised by her findings.

“Craig [Layman] told me about the 6 ppt feeding, but I didn’t know she ramped [sic] them back up to 27 ppt in 2 hours with no ill effects,” Jud wrote to Arrington in December 2012, according to an e-mail shared with The Post. “That’s crazy.”

In an interview Wednesday, Jud said that he and his adviser had planned experiments testing the salinity levels lionfish could tolerate — long before Lauren’s science project.

“I tend to overstate the excitement and importance of kids’ discoveries,” Jud said by telephone. “That e-mail was from me to him saying, ‘Oh, that’s really great.'”

Lauren Arrington took home the third place in her district’s science fair. And in October 2013, Jud submitted a new paper for review: The paper verified and expanded on Lauren’s findings. She was even cited in the text and in the acknowledgements of that paper, which was published in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes.

But when the work started picking up media attention, something changed.

Many of those media stories suggested that Lauren had discovered lionfish in the Florida estuaries. Her father blames the media’s tendency to sensationalize stories for the error.

“Clearly she did not discover lionfish were in the estuary,” he said. “I totally agree with Zack’s contention. All of the authors on that 2011 paper discovered lionfish in the estuary. Lauren predicted experimentally how far up the estuary they could invade.”

Arrington said he is well aware that news organizations have latched on to Lauren’s “feel good” story, which has nothing to do with lionfish or salinity levels or even, really, science. He said both he and Lauren have repeatedly mentioned the work of Jud and his former adviser Layman in interviews, but that it’s rarely the focus of media coverage.

Jud, on the other hand, believes the omission has been too consistent for it to have been an accident.

“There were so many media stories that completely left my work out of the picture that I find it hard to believe that it is a media problem,” Jud said. “This has been one of the most disappointing experiences in my academic career.”

The disagreement between Jud and the Arringtons has taken an acrimonious turn, and Arrington said he views them as an “attack” on his young daughter.

Jud said that he feels “terrible” that Lauren has been caught in the middle, but his issue, he said, is not with the media attention she’s received. He said he’s worked hard to encourage young scientists throughout his time as a graduate student at Florida International.

“The story should be about how my research, which I spent years doing, is being intentionally swept under the rug,” Jud said.

According to her father, Lauren is aware of the controversy but has taken it in stride.

“Everyone who has read my story is reading his paper,” she said, according to her father.

In an e-mail to The Post, Jud’s former adviser, Layman, said he will publish a full timeline of events on his blog by the end of the week. He declined to speak about the issue further.

“This story,” he said, “has gotten out of hand.”

Update 7/24/14: Professor Craig Layman has published a full timeline of events as he knows them on his blog here.