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How a Legacy of Scientific Innovation Impacts the Next Generation of Scientists

When most people read John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, they read it as a work of literature by a great American author. Rafe Sagarin, however, saw it as a research opportunity.

After reading Steinbeck’s account of a six-week marine specimen-collecting expedition in Baja California, Sagarin decided that he could do the same trip. He chartered a boat and spent six weeks traveling the same path as Steinbeck and collected specimens along the way. When he returned, he compared his notes with those of Steinbeck to produce a report detailing the changes in marine ecology from the 1950s to today and adding valuable observational research to the field.

“Rafe was a great scientist and a creative thinker in ways that were inspirational to others,” said Benjamin Halpern, who attended graduate school with Sagarin at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). “He was always thinking outside of the box and bridging disciplines and perspectives in ways that were not only innovative for the field of marine ecology, but also allowed for a broader understanding of the work that we do and how it intersects with literature, art, national security and many other things.”

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in earth systems biology from Stanford and his doctorate in ecology evolution and marine biology from UCSB, Sagarin started his influential and innovative career in the field. He was the author of three books and nearly a hundred scholarly articles and book chapters and he was most known for his work with the U.S. government that suggested that policymakers could learn how to fight terrorism by studying animal behavior.

Sadly, in 2015, Sagarin was killed by a drunk driver at age 43 in Tucson, Arizona, where he had been working to create a functioning model of the Gulf of California as an associate research scientist at the University of Arizona.

“Rafe’s death was a great loss to the marine ecology community,” said Halpern. “His tragic and early death motivated us to do something good and so we started the Rafe Sagrain Fund for Innovative Ecology to make a safe environment for the next generation to create ideas, try new things and think outside of the box to tackle global challenges, just like Rafe always did.”

“Each year, we announce the award recipients at the Western Society of Naturalists Annual Meeting,” said Halpern. “Past projects include social media campaigns to change the negative connotation around spiders and monitoring mangroves in Tanzania. I can only imagine that we will get more innovative as we grow and encourage people to submit really creative projects.”

On November 21, the Western Society of Naturalists announced the 2017 award winners, Brenton T. Spies, for a paper on tidewater goby, and an honorable mention to Melissa Ward for research on carbon services in seagrass.

“We are already starting to see some change in the marine biology community due to this award and it is inspiring the type of innovation that really embodies who Rafe was,” said Halpern. “We would not have been able to do it without the Santa Barbara Foundation. When we were looking for a place to manage our funds, the Santa Barbara Foundation was the only and obvious choice - it is local, has great service and, at least in my view, is the best option for running and managing small funds in the community.”

For more information about how to set up a fund or collective giving group with the Santa Barbara Foundation, please visit our website or contact Jessica Sanchez at
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