Chris Garrison nearly got lost on the way to Lizard Land, Los Baños — the temporary home and habitual stomping grounds of renowned UC Santa Cruz reptile and amphibian biologist Barry Sinervo.
“I was cracking up because he would always write these cryptic emails,” Garrison said. “And his emails for how to get to Los Baños were no different. […] There were no marked roads, and I had to go down roads that he [named himself], and so I had to figure out what the road was just on intuition.”
Garrison graduated from UCSC with a B.S. in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) in 2018, and jokingly compared his desert trek to the one Luke Skywalker undertook in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back while seeking the guidance of the Jedi master Yoda. Like the green multi-centenarian, Sinervo made his home for a month last spring far away from the outside world, on a patch of privately-owned ranch land near the eastern edge of the Pacheco Pass. He invited Garrison there for a week to help him film lizards for his virtual field study course and conduct his annual count and catalog of them.
More to the point, Sinervo, like the Jedi master of Dagobah, was a figure both worldly and otherworldly — simultaneously concerned with the particulars of empirical research and its larger, global implications. “Lizard Land,” as he called his quaint desert abode, was the site where he famously discovered a “rock-paper-scissors” dynamic in the breeding strategies of the common side-blotched lizard three decades ago, a pattern he and numerous other zoologists would later observe in all manner of reptiles, mammals, and bacteria.
Sinervo’s death on Mar. 15, due to a rare form of cancer, left behind a long trail of students, friends, family members, and unfinished research. Don Miles, a professor of biology at Ohio University and longtime collaborator of his, said Sinervo was studying how his previous work on reptile breeding behaviors could become a lens to view the behavior of other animal species, including humans. Miles received a manuscript from his friend on this topic just hours before he died.
“When I got the manuscript I thought okay, well, we’ll submit this, and then move on to the next project,” Miles said. “[So] when I got the news from Jeanie [his wife] that he had died, that was a total shock. It was disorienting at first because I couldn’t believe it.”
Sinervo came to academic renown for his work studying the effects of climate change on global reptile diversity. Culminating in a landmark 2010 paper published in the journal Science, this work was based on the premise that lizards, lacking sweat glands, can only control their body temperatures by moving in and out of shade. Hotter climates afford less hours in the day when they can be out and about — and fewer opportunities to breed.
Known for his witty classroom catchphrases, Sinervo would often implore his students to “think like a lizard” so they could truly understand them. His webpage features zany references to an unreleased flash game where you could embody a mate-starved reptile and a 2000s-era animation of Sinervo morphing into one.
But far from cold-blooded himself, Sinervo fostered incredibly close relationships in his work and personal life with no strict line dividing the two. His widow, Jeanie Vogelzang, recalled that she met every single one of his graduate students and would frequently have them over for meals.
“We really cared about the students,” Vogelzang said. “They were not making a lot of money and we could have them over here; buy good wine, just have fun.”
Pauline Blaimont, one of his former graduate students, said that at an EEB department dinner, he stood up before all gathered to announce her upcoming dissertation defense, which was about tracking lizard populations in the Pyrenees mountains.
“He got up there and he was like, ‘I’m so proud, Pauline is gonna be finishing this year, we need to all band together and help her out,’” Blaimont said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, stop. I’m so embarrassed right now.’ But it was so sweet, […] something a parent would do.”
“There are always more things that you wish you could have gotten from a mentor. But Barry was really supportive, and I think in ways that I didn’t really understand, laying the groundwork for me to get really important transformative experiences.”Joe Stewart
Blaimont said that Sinervo’s recent research on the effects climate change would have on lizard and amphibian populations had carried her to far-flung reaches of the world, including parts of Mexico, South America, and the Pyrenees mountain range bordering France and Spain.
This behavior was typical of Sinervo who, prior to being hospitalized, enjoyed sending himself, his family, and his students abroad for large portions of the year. Joe Stewart, another of his former graduate students, said this was based in a desire to uplift his students and their academic careers.
“There are always more things that you wish you could have gotten from a mentor,” Stewart said. “But Barry was really supportive, and I think in ways that I didn’t really understand, laying the groundwork for me to get really important transformative experiences. And I remember when he started getting cancer and it was getting more serious, at one point we were having some sort of shindig at his house and he was telling me I had to carry on the climate work.”
As Sinervo grew ill over the past few years (though he had known about his condition for the past six), it was his students like Blaimont and Stewart who drove him to his appointments at Stanford Hospital. When he died, over a hundred of his former students, friends, colleagues, and collaborators from across the world posted to a Group Greeting card sent to Vogelzang and their 18-year-old son, Ari.
In Oct. 2020, after a particularly bad bout of his illness, professor Don Miles met with Sinervo to discuss what would become of his ongoing research. Sinervo made Miles his informal academic executor, and he, along with many of Sinervo’s former students, plan to publish Sinervo’s large collection of notes and data over the coming years.
As close as a man could get to a polymath in the present day, Sinervo’s brilliance came in his ability to cross boundaries — whether they were between academic disciplines or between various aspects of his life. He will be remembered for decades to come.
“He wasn’t just a scientist,” Vogelzang said. “He built our garden with rocks and our deck and our hardwood floors, tiled our sunroom and carved totems and drew and did Pointillism and did watercolor with me when we went camping. […] He just wanted to live.”
My introduction to Barry Sinervo came under completely different circumstances than his death. A little over two years ago, I was writing a profile on our university’s many brilliant animal researchers, and spoke to Sinervo over the phone very briefly about the California red-legged frog — a vulnerable amphibian species whose populations on campus were under threat due to trees encroaching around their ponds.
Even in that short conversation I could discern his obvious enthusiasm for his work and knack for letting the world know about it. He invited me out to visit his field site at Moore Creek to see (hear) for myself the nifty way his lab was tracking red-legged frog populations via the loudness of their croaks. These plans fell through, though, on account of rain, which he said ruins all experiments.