Rafe Sagarin would have made good use of the technologically tricked-out symposium room of the University of Arizona’s new Environment and Natural Resources Building, where his collaborators gathered to remember him Thursday.
Not that he was overly fond of buildings.
Sagarin, who died in May at the age of 43, was most at home in nature, but equally adept at using the latest technology to teach and to spread the word about his scientific investigation of the natural world.
He also liked to gather groups of smart people from disparate fields, which is the purpose of the room and the entire building, where the UA’s Institute of the Environment, dedicated to interdisciplinary approaches to environmental problems, is now headquartered on the fifth floor.
In May, Sagarin was struck and killed by a motorist while riding his bicycle along Arizona 77 near Biosphere 2. He was taking a break from a project to transform the Biosphere 2 lagoon into a living replica of the Sea of Cortez. The driver has been charged with manslaughter and awaits trial in Pinal County Superior Court.
On Thursday, Sagarin’s varied colleagues and collaborators gathered to present a symposium on his life’s work, with each describing an aspect of his passion and scholarship, and all taking note of his devotion to his wife, Rebecca Crocker, their daughters Ella and Rosa, and the foster babies they took in.
On the professional side, it was akin to the tale of the blind men describing an elephant.
For Sagarin, though, the more appropriate metaphor is the octopus, which he offered as a model of decentralized decision-making in his book “Lessons From the Octopus: How Secrets From Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters and Disease.”
That title reveals why his scholarship is tough to describe. His essential credentials were in marine biology, but he didn’t move through academic fields in an orderly fashion.
His father-in-law, Chet Crocker, said in a video tribute that “whenever (Rafe) had a chance in his career to move up or move out, he always moved out.”
He was a “creative lateral thinker,” said Crocker, which is how he parlayed an expertise in marine biology into lessons about diplomacy, governing and security.
Crocker, the James R. Schlesinger professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, said Sagarin summarized the octopus book to provide the final chapter of Crocker’s most recent one.
UA Dean of Science Joaquin Ruiz said Sagarin’s penchant for moving sideways resulted in surprising collaborations.
He called the audience of about 100 who gathered in the Agnese Nelms Haury symposium room “a collection of characters I’ve never seen in one place before.”
Sagarin collaborated with poets and artists, in addition to ecologists, terrorism experts and military brass. Two poets, Alison Hawthorne Deming and Chris Cokinos, read original works composed after Sagarin’s death.
His own artwork, a line drawing of an octopus, was the illustration for “Lessons from Rafe.”
The program also included a short film that Sagarin produced and narrated about the project to turn Biosphere 2’s ocean lagoon into a “mesocosm” of the Sea of Cortez.
In it, he embraced his contradictions. Clad in cowboy attire and squinting in the sun-bleached, high desert near Oracle, he announced in Western drawl: “I’m Rafe Sagarin and I’m a marine biologist.”
He went on to explain how the ocean is a critical piece of the Sonoran Desert, which meets the Gulf of California at its southern edge.
Sagarin loved the gulf. In 2004, while on the faculty at Duke University, he joined a seagoing expedition that followed the route taken in 1940 by marine ecologist Ed Ricketts and author John Steinbeck — chronicled in “The Log From the Sea of Cortez.”
Talking about that expedition for a 2009 story in the Arizona Daily Star, Sagarin said: “The key is the idea of serendipity — just go out and study nature. You may discover something completely unexpected.”
Peggy Turk Boyer, director of CEDO, the marine ecology institute in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, said Sagarin was “an observational ecologist” who rebelled against the kind of “reductionist science” that didn’t reflect nature. He wanted to “make way for life’s uncertainties.”
His rejection of reductionism is amplified in a book he wrote with Anibal Pauchard, “Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World.”
Pauchard, a forest ecologist in Argentina, sent a video tribute in which he talked about Sagarin’s disdain for “manipulative experimental approaches” that restrict discovery or original thought.
He said Sagarin urged other academics to always take a deep breath and count to 10 before saying things such as “Correlation does not imply causation” or “You can’t infer process from pattern.”
Sagarin believed that observation of those patterns is as important, and often more revelatory, than experimentation. It’s also more fun.
Gregg Garfin, a colleague in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, worked with Sagarin as part of the Institute of the Environment’s Arts and Environment Network.
He remembered an exercise in which students were listing the various attributes of art and science. Sagarin moved the word “emotion” from the art to the science category, saying “The process of discovery is filled with emotion.”
In that regard, he modeled his heroes, Ricketts and Steinbeck, who wrote: “The true biologist deals with life, with teeming, boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living.”