Alumnus’ intensity, creativity and drive led to great accomplishments, impact

Intense drive, creativity and a commitment to doing what’s right: Those are a few characteristics two Penn State professors use to describe Mark Pagani, a Penn State geosciences alumnus who died on Nov. 18 after multiple years of battling with an aggressive type of lymphoma.

Pagani took a nontraditional path through his career. After getting a bachelor of arts in geology from the University of Colorado Boulder, Pagani pursued not a scientific career but an artistic one. He became an accomplished professional musician for nearly a decade, serving as lyricist and lead singer for the bands Big Clock and One Big Room. He maintained his interests in science by tutoring chemistry and taking short courses on geology. One of those courses was taught by Michael Arthur, a Penn State faculty member today who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey at the time.

“I first saw Mark playing music at a get-together for students in the course, and I thought then, man, this guy is a great musician,” said Arthur.

Arthur fell out of touch with Pagani after the short course ended and eventually took up a faculty position at Penn State in the Department of Geosciences. One day, Arthur was contacted by a colleague and former postdoctoral scholar, Brad Sageman, who is now chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University. Sageman had stayed in touch with Pagani, and he was helping Pagani transition his career from music back to the geosciences.

“Brad said to me, ‘Mark is considering going back to graduate school, and I know you like taking chances,’ ” recalled Arthur. “I invited Mark for a visit and was very interested in mentoring him. He had an intense personality and he was nonconforming and interesting, and I could really see his potential as a future researcher.”

Kate Freeman, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, became Pagani’s co-adviser, with Arthur, and said she saw potential in Pagani’s future.

“Mark had intensity, creativity and drive, which are all the intangibles you look for in students,” said Freeman.

Pagani began his studies with a few side projects before getting involved in a research project on which Arthur and Freeman were co-principal investigators. The project dealt with the climate of the Miocene period, roughly 5 to 20 million years ago, and Pagani played a critical role in the research.

“He was reconstructing how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere during the Miocene. This was an important time in our field when a link between warm climate and high levels of carbon dioxide was debated, and he was able to constrain that,” said Freeman.

Pagani received a doctorate in geosciences in 1998 from Penn State and shortly after took up a postdoctoral research position at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He joined the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as a research scientist and held the affiliated position for the remainder of his career. In 2000, he was offered an assistant professorship position at Yale University. He was promoted to professor in 2010, and in 2012, he was appointed director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute.

As his career developed, Pagani expanded his research focus to analyze different historical eras of warm climate. By looking at how different species respond to naturally warmer or cooler periods, his goal was to better understand how anthropogenic climate change might take shape in the future.

“One of Mark’s great themes was that if we are to come to grips with anthropogenic climate change today, we need to understand natural processes and how they have influenced climate variability in the past,” wrote Jay Ague, the Henry Barnard Davis Professor of Geology & Geophysics and chair of Yale University’s Department of Geology & Geophysics, in a tribute to Pagani.

A few research areas Pagani investigated were drought impacts on the Mayan civilization, carbon sequestration, ice sheet sensitivity to climate change, carbon distribution in different locations and times, and scientific tools and methods to glean more information from fossil and sedimentary records of the past. He received research funding from numerous sources, including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Joint Oceanographic Institutions. He was also a member of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and is slated to be named an AGU Fellow in December 2016.

Though he focused the majority of his efforts on his scientific career, Pagani continued creating art in his spare time with devotion. He continued his musical career as lead singer of the band Sister Sadie’s Foundry. He frequently painted while he wasn't conducting research, Freeman recalled. His artistic interests also extended into sculpture, said Arthur.

“I remember going to a geochemistry conference in New Hampshire one summer with Mark. He rode up with me and I was planning to give him a ride back. One day, when the conference was nearly over, he said to me, ‘I need to go to this nearby quarry to pick up a chunk of marble.’ Fortunately, I had a vehicle with a big bed for storage, so we brought it back to State College. He ended up making a sculpture with it,” said Arthur.

He made a name for himself in the scientific community through his accomplishments and advances, but a defining characteristic of Pagani was his reluctance to accept accolades or recognition for his work. He had an especially profound impact on Arthur, Freeman and many other researchers in the realm of paleoceanography, and he was committed to ensuring that the scientific methods that his colleagues employed were accurate.

“Penn State took a chance on somebody, and it was great,” said Freeman. “The willingness to give him a chance is something Penn State should be proud of, but he’s gone on to make us extremely proud through his hard work and success.”

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Last Updated December 12, 2016