Remembering Rafe: From Tide Pools to the Stars

With the tragic death of Raphael "Rafe" Sagarin, the UA community has lost someone whose boundless enthusiasm, sharp intellect and caring attitude inspired others.
 
His "favorite office," in his words, was the tide pools along the rocky coast of Monterey, California.

Following the example of marine biologist Ed Ricketts, whom he admired, Raphael "Rafe" Sagarin spent much of his time as an aspiring marine ecologist observing and studying these microcosms teeming with life, pounded by waves at one moment, only to slowly evaporate under the scorching sun in the next, until they were washed over by the returning tide — all in the course of a day.

As the science writer for UANews, I had the privilege to cover some of the recent work of Rafe, who lost his life to an alleged drunken driver while riding his bicycle to the UA's Biosphere 2 near Oracle, Arizona, on May 28. But I feel even more privileged to have known him as a professor, mentor and writer whose talent I wish I had, a fellow underwater enthusiast and bike commuter, and a generous friend who had an unmatched way of inviting people into his home and heart.

Rafe, who was an associate research scientist at Biosphere 2, remains one of the most influential human beings I have met. Few have inspired me as much as he has, and few have become role models for me in every aspect of life.

With infectious and unabating enthusiasm and passion for all that he did, Rafe was deeply passionate about the oceans, particularly the Gulf of California, a desert sea whose biological riches prompted Jacques Cousteau to call it the "aquarium of the world." In his position as program director for oceans at Biosphere 2, Rafe was determined to bring this desert sea to Arizona — in the form of a living laboratory at Biosphere 2 that would inspire the next generation of ocean scientists and advocates and provide opportunities for everyone to experience the gulf's unique setting and biodiversity.

"Rafe's plans for the Biosphere 2 ocean were huge," said John Adams, deputy director of Biosphere 2. "His energy and enthusiasm were great and contagious. He would tell me, 'John, we are going big or we are going home — this ocean can be amazing.'"

He added that after becoming part of the Biosphere 2 research team, Rafe immediately recognized the research and educational potential of the Biosphere 2 ocean as an instrument that would help scientists bridge the gap between the laboratory and the real world.

Learning From the Octopus

For Rafe, the real world was his laboratory. Making connections where no one else would, and applying an open mind and creativity that had little patience for boundaries separating academic disciplines — or even academia from non-academia — he strongly believed in holistic approaches to understanding a complex world in which most things are not what they seem to be.
One of his favorite quotations, which he shared with the students in a marine ecology course I was fortunate enough to take, came from the book "The Log From the Sea of Cortez" by John Steinbeck (although most of it actually was written by Ricketts). The words recounted a voyage undertaken by the writer and his naturalist friend in 1940: "… 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."

Rafe encouraged all of us to look from the tide pool to the stars and back, to consider the big picture and the small picture, and how they are connected, when trying to make sense of the world. He was fascinated and delighted by what he observed in the tide pools, which, in the words of Steinbeck and Ricketts, were "ferocious with life: an exuberant fierceness in the littoral here, a vital competition for existence…. They fight back at the sea with a joyful survival."

In all of his endeavors, he put the creature — human, animal, plant or other — first and foremost. His thinking seemed to be deeply rooted in the very essence of life, with all its messiness, its contradictions, its ugliness and its beauty. Rafe embraced it with an ability to reconcile them that I have not seen in anyone else.

Intrigued by evolutionary history and the various ways organisms use to deal with changing environments and threats, he developed a new area that he called "natural security," embracing biological science, philosophy, psychology and sociology. "How nature can help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters and disease" is the subtitle of his book, "Learning From the Octopus," in which he proposes innovative perspectives that have attracted the interest of decision-makers in national defense, corporations and emergency response agencies.

Looking for the Good in Everything

I remember discussions in class about issues threatening our oceans and their existence as the foundations of global health that left everyone depressed — except for our instructor. Rafe always managed to discover fresh ways of thinking that revealed a glimmer of hope, and he inspired his students to try the same.

In 2004, he embarked on a journey with other marine researchers from Monterey Bay that retraced the steps of Ricketts' and Steinbeck's six-week trip through the Gulf of California, with the purpose of observing and collecting marine life and comparing it to what it was 65 years earlier.

He could seamlessly switch from a visionary leader taking on grand challenges — such as how to turn a stainless steel tank full of murky saltwater into a miniature ocean teeming with life — to the guy donning work gloves, prying open a paint bucket and getting to work on bringing the big vision closer to reality.

For those of us who were fortunate enough to know Rafe Sagarin, I hope we can continue to learn from him, doing whatever we can to make the world a little bit friendlier and healthier.
 

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