Garen Baghdasarian

Heartbreak is crushing, but it can lead to personal transformation. Garen Baghdasarian was a junior at UCLA when it happened to him.

“My girlfriend at the time, my first true love, she broke up with me,” he says with a chuckle. “I was devastated, and a friend of mine was like, ‘Let’s go diving, let’s go scuba diving.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go scuba diving.’ I came back from that dive and everything changed.”

Baghdasarian — now an award-winning professor and scientist at Santa Monica College — quickly switched his major to marine biology. His test scores skyrocketed. The following year, he took a 10-week senior trip to the Catalina Islands, where he bonded with the late Leonard Muscatine, a pioneering scientist who would become not only his graduate advisor but a close friend and mentor.

“We could talk about anything. It was a personal sort of relationship based on our passion for nature,” he says. “He was fundamental to the person I became. In some ways, he became a second father figure.”

Through Muscatine, Baghdasarian discovered the primary subject of his research — coral reefs, and how they react to bleaching events — and learned pedagogical tricks that have led him to excel as an educator at SMC for the last 19 years.

“[Muscatine] was focused and question-driven, and had the ability to collaborate with everyone,” Baghdasarian says. “He had that classic ability to simplify things, really complex ideas, into forms that anyone can understand.”

Just like his mentor, Baghdasarian now takes students on trips: to Catalina, to nearby tide pools, and even to far-flung locations like Tahiti for research.

In 2011 he embarked on his own grand adventure: a 5,000 mile trip across the South Pacific with his wife, Sara, to study the effects of trash accumulation in the ocean.

“At times seeing all the trash and stuff in the ocean, that was of course heartbreaking,” he says. “But at the same time it’s an amazing adventure. You’re enjoying being at sea in the most isolated waters anywhere in the world.”

Baghdasarian has incorporated that experience into his lectures, and has started encouraging students to actively participate in the fight for environmental health. Two and a half years ago, he joined the City of Santa Monica’s Environmental Task Force to ensure that the community does all it can to establish environmentally conscious policies.

“What I really appreciate about the city of Santa Monica, it’s the attempt to find balance between economic prosperity, social justice and environmental sustainability. They really seem to push for that.”

— Danny Karel