Learning from Rafe


Rafe_Blue_Marble-On May 28, on the northwestern outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, biologist Rafe Sagarin went for an evening bike ride. He intended to spend the night at the nearby Biosphere 2 facility, where he hoped to one day build a living model of the Gulf of California. He was, as always, full of plans and ideas—for himself, for his family, for his students, for the world. Shortly after 6:30 p.m., a driver, allegedly impaired, swerved off the road and hit Rafe from behind. Rafe died that evening. He was 43.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who would call themselves friends of Rafe’s. I’m one of them. Rafe was a source who became a friend and colleague, someone I saw infrequently but always thought of with fondness and respect. Over the decade that I knew him, he often gave me hope for the fields I cover most. He often gave me hope, period.

Many people have written lovely remembrances of Rafe elsewhere, including here, here, and here. I’d like to add a few words to what has already been said.

Rafe was a marine biologist by training, and he was an exceptional one: in 1995, he co-authored a paper in Science based on data that he and a fellow student had collected as Stanford undergraduates. It was the first demonstration of the effects of climate change on the intertidal zone. In 1998, he led President Clinton and Vice-President Gore on a tour of the tidepools near Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station.

Rafe could have followed a straight, well-tended path to the conventional pinnacle of his field. But his interests went well beyond his own discipline, and it seemed that whenever he had to choose between moving upward and moving outward, he moved outward. He spent several months as a science advisor to U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis because he wanted to understand how politics worked. He brought together ecologists and national-security experts to discuss how security strategies in plants and animals could inform those in the human realm, eventually producing two books on the subject (one is Learning from the Octopus, a book for general readers). He wrote another book, about observational ecology, with a Chilean colleague he met over e-mail. He took a position at Biosphere 2 in 2013 in part because he saw that the institution, despite its troubled past, had the potential to educate Sonoran Desert residents about the ocean next door. In his teaching—at UCLA, Duke, and finally the University of Arizona—he mentored students from a wide range of departments, striving to connect science with policy and policy with real change.

In 2004, he and several colleagues retraced Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck’s storied 1940 expedition to the Gulf of California. He liked to quote Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez:

… the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things— plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

Such intellectual breadth is not always rewarded in academia, and while Rafe had an impressive resume, I’m sure his cheerful disregard for disciplinary boundaries cost him a few laurels—and some job security. He never seemed to mind, though. He was confident enough to follow his interests regardless of such external encouragements, and by doing so, he inspired hundreds of students to do the same. He lived a quietly radical life, and he lived it with energy, generosity, and mischievous good humor.

I last saw Rafe just over a year ago, when he invited me to Tucson to spend a few days with his current cohort of graduate students. I stayed at his house, which he and his wife and two daughters had filled to the rafters with color and life and interestingness. We laughed one morning when Rafe, a committed bike commuter, took off for campus on two wheels out of habit, innocently leaving me behind.

Part of mourning an untimely death is mourning all that could have been, and in Rafe’s case, that list is especially long. There are the students he never got to mentor, the colleagues he never got to inspire, the wild ideas he never got to nurture, and, above all, the family he never got to grow old with. Those experiences were stolen from him, and from all who knew and might have known him. His example, however, remains. As his wife Rebecca wrote in a public post just a few days after his death:

What I think he would want more than anything is for all of us to take our own … brave warrior hearts and go out into the world believing that our ideas do matter, that we have the power to do things and change things and live an incredible life.

Will do, Rafe. And thank you.


Top photo by Paul Ingram, used with kind permission. A public ceremony honoring Rafe’s life will be held at the University of Arizona on September 17. His family has suggested that donations in his memory be sent to CEDO (the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans) and the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust.

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