In Memoriam: Rachel Morrison


Rachel Anne Morrison, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, suffered fatal injuries after being struck by a car on March 28 in Del Mar, Calif.

Rachel was an emerging star with a passion for being at sea and applying her research to the future health of the ocean. Her research focused on questions of resilience of marine ecosystems, and specifically the capacity of ecosystem recovery following major disturbances. Rachel’s thirst for being at sea was evidenced by her participation in research cruises to Brazil, the Cook Islands, the Republic of Kiribati, as well as a number of other ship-based expeditions.

Her current and former Scripps Oceanography advisors Stuart Sandin, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, and Phil Hastings described her as a bright, energetic, and driven individual.

Sandin fondly recalled Rachel’s never-ending compulsion to succeed and her unique view of obstacles as opportunities to find creative solutions. Aburto-Oropeza began working with her a short time ago and described their interactions as one of the most dynamic collaborations in his life and highlighted her passion for communicating science to broad audiences.

Her friends and colleagues at Scripps have described her touchingly:

“Rachel was a beautiful person, inside and out. She was dedicated to her work in ocean conservation and exploration. She enjoyed simply being out on the water. She was a brilliant, giving, and selfless person that always had a smile on her face. Rachel was an explorer at heart, sailing across the Pacific and collecting valuable data as she went. Among her many talents, she was an amazing communicator and editor. We will always keep her in our hearts and miss her dearly.”
       - Lindsay Bonito, Kate Furby, Maggie Johnson, Jill Harris, Levi Lewis, Mike Fox, Susan Kram, Cara Simonsen

Rachel’s passing is a tremendous loss to Scripps Oceanography and the entire UC San Diego community.

A fund to support graduate students at Scripps has been established in her memory. Make a gift.

You may also call or mail your gift in Rachel’s memory to:
       Scripps Institution of Oceanography
       Development Office
       University of California, San Diego
       9500 Gilman Drive, 0210
       La Jolla, CA 92093-0210

Due to the generosity of many supporters to this fund, we are pleased to report that it is now endowed and will generate funds for Scripps students in perpetuity. For information on the UC San Diego Foundation’s Endowment Investment Policy and guidelines, please go to and locate How Endowment Works under the Financial Information tab. If you have additional questions, please contact UC San Diego Foundation Accounting at 858-534-1038.

A memorial service for Rachel's family and Scripps friends and colleagues was held on April 3 at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.



-- The first time I interacted with Rachel was during her first year at SIO, when she sought my help while preparing a fellowship application. I was instantly impressed by her - her writing was impeccable, clearly conveying a genuine love for her field, her thorough research plan, and her mature interpretation of the impacts of her proposed work. I thought, "This woman is a force. Not only will she get the fellowship, but she's going to be a star researcher". It turned out that she did not get that particular fellowship (which I found truly baffling), but when she told me, her disappointment was almost completely masked by her enthusiasm to apply herself to the next pursuit. And that was just how she was. Motivated, resilient, persistent, capable.
Last fall, Rachel and I were both Teaching Assistants for an undergraduate class. This time I needed Rachel's help. Having never been a TA before, I showed the marks of a novice. Rachel, a teaching pro, could not have been more calm, efficient, or poised. She was always willing to do more than her share of the work, and I actually had to convince her to do less work. One night, we were grading exams, and we split the exam in half so we each had an equal portion to grade. Rachel finished her section in one third of the time it took me. I kept apologizing for taking so long and telling her she could leave, but she just laughed, helped, and stayed until we were through. In retrospect, maybe that's why she offered to do more of the work… but either way, she showed not a hint of frustration with me. She was patient, kind, and helpful, always with a smile on her face. We had fun grading together, chatting about the class, research, and life. I was happy to get to know her better, and to learn more about this truly special person. I feel lucky to have had her as my friend and colleague, and I know so many people who feel the same way.
Rachel was inspiring just by being herself. She was impressive without being deliberately so. She was the kind of person that people are proud to know, and she will be very dearly missed.
     - Lauren Shipp, friend and fellow student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

-- I first met Rachel when she offered to help with my SCUBA project.   She asked to help in an email she signed with a quote:
"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again." -William Beebe
     Beebe was a naturalist, an innovator, an explorer, a writer of both scientific and popular works, a conservationist, and of course he was a marine biologist. It’s easy to see why Rachel liked him because that sounds like a description of Rachel (they had some similar interests). My relationship with Rachel was mainly on the ocean through a natural history SCUBA diving class and through her help with my SCUBA project. She helped with dives that were usually dark, deep, cold, and lacking of any traditional spectacles that motivate most divers. But Rachel wasn’t your average marine biologist and she wasn't going to let that interfere with her scientific curiosity to see something new. She had this underlying grit that was hard to see through her radiant smile but I saw it. In between dives, she just brushed off the cold with her smile and we chatted about our shared appreciation for the amazingness that is the ocean. We talked about how it’s impossible to have a bad day being out on the water and that we should go more often. We planned to do more deep dives and I told her that I would gladly help her with her project if she ever needed.  She never asked for the favor returned because she didn't do it to have the favor returned. Rachel just liked to help people, she loved seeing new things in the ocean and being on the ocean. I really liked that about her. At that time I knew she had been working with rockfish a lot and she had told me that she was working through some significant challenges but I also knew that she believed in the motto to “finish what you start.” I recently learned that she is co-author on a paper in review about rockfish and I can’t say I’m surprised to see that she was succeeding to overcome prior challenges. Rachel was as driven, tenacious, brilliant as a scientist as she was humble, kind, funny, and generous as a person.  I was lucky to have known her. 
     Another heaven and earth must pass before there will be another Rachel Morrison. Rest in peace sweet Rachel.
     - Michael Navarro, friend and colleague, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

-- I met Rachel when we started grad school here at SIO in the fall of 2010.  We took all the same classes, and one thing that was apparent very early on was that she loved snacks (something I could definitely relate to)!  It seemed like she was always talking about food, and she often lured people to study groups and offered to return favors with Craisins.  Here are some excerpts from my old emails with Rachel:
     “I am shamelessly looking for someone to come with me to the Price Center on upper campus tomorrow night so I won't look as sketchy shoving pizza into tupperwares.”
     “And thank you for the brownies! (If they're "petite", is it okay that it only took me three bites to finish one?)”
     “Honestly I'd like to talk more about what kinds of candy we should get, since that's the only thing that will motivate me at this point :)”
     “I hope you all come (I have Craisins).”
     “As an incentive, though, I can pay in booze / cash / hugs / Craisins / one free ride anywhere, anytime. I can also promise to entertain you with 11 minutes of bad jokes.”
     “hakuna matata if not, of course, but I'd rather give my money (real money! not craisins!) to one of you than a shuttle. :) “

    One thing I like about these quotes is that it conveys her sense of humor and how she never took anything too seriously.  As everyone else has also said, Rachel was always smiling.  In fact, as I went through my inbox I noticed that almost all of the emails I have from Rachel contain a smiley face.  Even when you couldn’t see her in person, she was still smiling at you.
     In terms of her commitment to her research and her passion for the ocean, she was an incredibly hard worker.  No matter how early I would get into SIO, her car would already be parked outside, and I would see her working diligently at her desk on my walk into my office.  Her work ethic was most evident to me during our first year at SIO when we were both scrambling to finish our first year projects for the MB departmental exam.  She would literally work in lab until 1 am and be back in the morning by 7:30 am.  And all the while, she still had a smile on her face.  When I would see her in lab on the weekends, me being depressed about being there on a Saturday performing experiments that had failed time and time again, she was there with a warm smile (yes, there’s a theme here), offering support and animal crackers.
     Another thing Rachel loved was running.  I would often pass by her while she was on her evening run, and she told me this was her favorite part of the day -- running on the beach barefoot.  Last year in April Rachel and I participated in a “Run for Boston” event here in San Diego to support those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings.  During our run I talked to her about how she wanted to do a marathon someday.  Rachel followed through with this goal, and she had been training to run the actual Boston Marathon with her dad this year. She was so excited about it. The fact that she won’t be able to do this now breaks my heart.
     Rachel was funny, supportive, thoughtful, selfless, and driven. Thank you for sharing your light with all of us, Rachel. We miss you.
    - Lani Gleason, friend and fellow student of 2010 cohort, Scripps Institution of Oceanography 

-- I had the privilege of working with Rachel over the past year. Like all students, Rachel discovered that grad school required a tremendous amount of hard work.  But each of our conversations began and ended with her ever-present smile.  There was no challenge too big that Rachel was not willing to embrace.  Rachel was a dedicated student, scientist, and friend. Her optimism and excitement for the future was inspiring.  While I played just a small role in Rachel’s life at Scripps, she made me proud of the job I do and I will cherish the time we shared. Our hearts ache for the loss of our dear friend.
    - Gilbert Bretado, Graduate Coordinator, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

-- I first met Rachel when she was a student at Notre Dame Academy. She lit up a room with her wonderful smile when she walked into a class. Such drive and promise was evident as she excelled academically and athletically.  Rachel was kind and helpful, always there for her peers and teachers.  My heart is broken for Rachel and her family.
    - Lynne Lown

--  Rachel was a free spirit who lived a full life despite her young age. She was an amazing person who was always surrounded by a loving family whether on the east coast, the west coast or floating in the middle of the ocean. She was a dedicated scholar, a focused academic, a creative scientist, a meticulous editor, an adventurous explorer, a strong athlete, an ocean advocate and a generous, courteous and giving friend. Rachel had a contagious smile that was always there regardless of the situation. Her piercing blue eyes contained a level of intensity and depth that you always knew she was absorbing everything you said regardless of what kind of conversation you were having with her. Rachel had a promising and exciting career ahead of her and she was excited to embark on the next series of Life’s wild adventures. She was a rising star. None of us expected Rachel’s adventure to end prematurely and because of this we will forever miss her. We can’t bring Rachel back but we can honor her. I promise that Rachel’s life, her passion for marine science and ocean conservation, her legacy as a generous and giving friend will live on here in my lab, with our extended lab family, and through this wonderful institution. You will be missed but not forgotten. We love you Rachel.
    - Professor Jennifer Smith

-- I first met Rachel five years ago in my conservation biology class at Boston University. She was a remarkable young woman who was truly passionate about marine conservation, and who always wanted to learn more. Because of her knowledge and excellent writing skills, I offered her half-time job after she graduated to work on my book the Essentials of Conservation Biology 5th edition. Not only was her work of the highest quality, but her positive attitude,  enthusiasm, and professionalism were an inspiration to everyone in the lab. After graduation we kept in touch, and often got together when she visited Boston.  Over the last few months she was helping with me with the Essentials of Conservation Biology 6th edition. As always, Rachel was a pleasure to work with, combining superb editing skills with a deep knowledge of marine biology. I was so saddened to learn of her passing away, and I plan to dedicate this edition of my book to Rachel. In this way, she will continue to be an inspiration to new students.
     - Richard Primack, Boston University, Department of Biology

-- Rachel was truly a generous soul, and an inspiration to us all. She was one of the kindest and sweetest people, and really went above and beyond to stay connected with everyone. She exhibited a phenomenal standard of excellence and a true spirit of adventure. She will be deeply missed.”
     - Randi Rotjan, New England Aquarium

-- Rachel was a bright, dedicated, compassionate, and deeply caring young marine scientist and conservationist. A piece of our future has been senselessly taken from us. We extend our love and shared condolences to her family, loved ones, friends, and colleagues.  Rachel was simply one of the best students that I have ever taught at BU.  In my many recommendation letters for her I stated that she was among the top three students I’d had the pleasure to mentor in my decades of college teaching.  She was studious, disciplined, passionate, focused, and doggedly hard working.  Beginning late in her undergraduate career, Rachel began working in my lab as the primary person analyzing miles of videotape taken in our remote central Pacific study region, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. This experience gave her a depth of understanding of this place that even those of us who’d briefly been there couldn’t easily approach. While at BU Rachel exhibited the qualities of a natural leader, including a unique, steely determination that I rarely see the likes of.  It was almost frightening, but it was balanced with a strong and genuine concern for the natural world, generating a sort of magnetic field around her, that it attracted everyone and never let them go.  Rachel was beloved of everyone, and she graced all the institutions where she worked with an indelibly positive mark…a high water mark for achievement and youthful promise. Certainly Boston University, The New England Aquarium, and Scripps Institute of Oceanography among them, will not forget her.  Once Rachel had settled at Scripps, she began undergoing a profound transformation.  Somewhere in the classroom or perhaps more likely in her travels to remote corners of the world ocean, Rachel was bitten hard by a particular bug, a bug that carries a disease of special sight.  It is highly selective in targeting its few and privileged victims.  It imbues them with a single-mindedness, a missionary zeal, an impatience with those who would show thoughtlessness, ignorance, or recalcitrance in coming to terms with the threats now mounting against the bright future that we all like to imagine for ourselves and for our children.  Rachel had caught the virus of concern, of responsibility, of life’s purpose and it burned hot within her.  Rachel was just emerging from the struggle of figuring out how she planned to execute her own piece of this mission, just as her life was cut cruelly short.  Of course we feel loss and remorse over Rachel’s passing, but the real loss, the real treasure that was taken from us sums across all that Rachel planned to do to right the wrongs we have wrought upon the ocean, and hence upon ourselves. The one silver lining of this loss is that Rachel left her mantle, there, for us to assume.  It is a wonderful gift, for by wearing it we keep Rachel and all that she stood for with us, and we are granted the opportunity to share in, to redeem, and to live the dreams that she dreamt. We dream your same dreams, Rachel, and in your name we shall make them real.
     - Les Kaufman, Boston University, Department of Biology

-- Anytime there is a loss in the community it is felt by all.  I have never actually physically met Rachel or even known her.  For the most I came across her memorial on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography [web site] while doing research on marine life at extreme ocean depths, but I feel that her loss has somehow impacted my life without even knowing her.  I will miss you Rachel.
    - Tariq El-Amin

-- I am a member of the Encinitas Traffic and Public Safety Commission. We all share the sadness and pain of those who knew and loved Rachel.  Human weakness can never be eliminated, even when occasionally it is manifested by an individual imbibing legal beverages that in this case disabled his moral cognitive capacities, yet still allowed him to have the keys to what had become a vehicle of mass destruction, as the pain extends far beyond the individual victim.  The mandate of our Commission is to make travesties such as this as rare as possible.  To help achieve this, the sadness you now feel has to be marshaled towards this goal.  A life of unlimited potential was lost;  beyond mourning, those who most feel this loss, when the time is right, can direct your analytic energies into finding a way to help us reduce tragedies such as this. Fewer drunk drivers on the road; misguided regulations eliminated to allow police to focus efforts against lethal driving; encouragement and support of citizen arrests when he/she sees an inebriated person approaching his car. Ideas such as these should be explored, and if meritorious become part of our laws. Each tragic death such as Rachel's that is prevented will go unreported, and there will be little reward for this effort, except in knowing that one more person went on to live a full life.
     - Al Rodbell, Encinitas Traffic and Public Safety Commission

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.