IN MEMORIAM: Lisa Ortuno, Ph.D., Baha'i, mother, scientist, iconoclast, servant of humanity


Last night I was shocked and heartbroken to learn of the sudden death of my friend Lisa Ortuno, Ph.D., in an awful car accident near her home in the Triangle area in North Carolina. The outpouring of loving tributes that have filled my social media space last night and today attests to the high esteem in which she was held by friends, family, and colleagues. Much has already been said, but I am moved to offer my own words of reflection as well. 


I first met Lisa in the early 2000s when my wife and I were living in Columbia, South Carolina. We had friends in common, and through them she began her investigation of the Baha'i Faith--a process she describes in part here, in a great post from the organization Sinai and Synapses, of which she was a member. We didn't really get to know each other until a couple of years ago, after she and we had moved away from Columbia, when I finally had the privilege of serving directly with her. I helped out with a workshop she and another dear friend were conducting in Washington, D.C. on science, sexuality, and the Baha'i teachings. That was where I first caught a glimpse not only of her clear and disciplined and expansive mind, but of her truly capacious and compassionate heart, her leavening sense of humor, and her extraordinary patience and humility in the collective endeavor of plumbing the depths of knowledge. Here was no average geneticist!


Although we didn't see each other in person often, we were connected through social media, and I can honestly say that every post Lisa made was guaranteed either to make me smile, or think deeply, or both. In person or in social media she was a model public intellectual, never hesitating to encourage and uplift, to defend the powerless, to pose challenging questions, and to foster discussion that was courteous and nuanced. She was happy to help tear down stale and unproductive thinking, but she went out of her way to preserve human dignity.


In thinking of the many things I'll miss about her, one that stands out is her frequent posting of photos of her eight-year-old daughter's "latest temporary pet"--a snail, a frog, a caterpillar, or some other creature that they found in their daily explorations of nature. I always got the impression that Lisa was having at least as much fun as her daughter. Indeed, her joyful enthusiasm, zest for learning, and sense of wonder at the magnificence of the universe were among her most attractive and contagious qualities. In everyhting she did, she seemed to embody the spirit of the true seeker that stands at the heart of the Baha'i Faith--and of all scientific and spiritual striving.


The last time we saw each other was last August in California at the Association for Baha'i Studies conference. I was going into a restaurant, and she was coming out with a group of friends, in the midst, I suspected, of plotting some new contribution to human progress. We greeted each other briefly and said we should get together. Alas, we didn't have a chance at the conference (and now, never in this life!), but she still managed to encourage me before it was done. She posted photos and highlights of my plenary panel on Facebook in real time, and when I saw it afterwards I really felt honored to have received Lisa's seal of approval, so to speak. She had the kind of perceptive clearheadedness that meant that if she showed up to a meeting or lent her time and talents to a cause--or even posted something to Facebook--I could be pretty well assured of that endeavor's integrity and worthiness. She seemed to embody this well-known prayer of 'Abdu'l-Baha:


O Lord, help Thou Thy loved ones to acquire knowledge and the sciences and arts, and to unravel the secrets that are treasured up in the inmost reality of all created beings. Make them to hear the hidden truths that are written and embedded in the heart of all that is. Make them to be ensigns of guidance amongst all creatures, and piercing rays of the mind shedding forth their light in this, the “first life.” Make them to be leaders unto Thee, guides unto Thy path, runners urging men on to Thy Kingdom.


Lisa's calling was to unravel secrets and share them with others. Her piercing mind shed warm rays if light on all she knew. She ran forward towards a future of true prosperity for the whole human family, and smiling all the while, urged others to quicken their pace.


I feel bereft, cheated somehow, at the thought of not being able to collaborate with her and benefit from her wisdom for many years to come. She was not quite a decade my senior, in the prime of life, and she had so much more to give to the world. Last night during my devotions, after praying for her soul's speedy progress in the spiritual realm I reread some of the words of Baha'u'llah in reference to the dynamic coherence betwen this physical plane and the worlds beyond. It is startling, thrilling, baffling stuff. Speaking of the spiritually illumined souls who pass on, Baha'u'llah says: 


The light which these souls radiate is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples. They are like unto leaven which leaveneth the world of being, and constitute the animating force through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest. Through them the clouds rain their bounty upon men, and the earth bringeth forth its fruits. All things must needs have a cause, a motive power, an animating principle. These souls and symbols of detachment have provided, and will continue to provide, the supreme moving impulse in the world of being.


So while I know it's customary to wish that a departed one might "rest in peace," this passage seems to indicate that such is just not Lisa's lot. Whenver her friends and loved ones work for the advancement of civilization, her spirit will be there, guiding and sustaining our efforts. Through her influence, there are many more "arts and wonders" yet to come.


One last thing. I'm painfully aware that all of this means nothing to Lisa's little girl. I don't know what I could possibly say to ease the pain of losing a mother at such a tender age. I have no idea what a precious child does to try and fill that incomparable void. As a father, I'm simply at a loss. Last night, all I could do was cry over my sleeping babies and pray for their protection, and her protection, and the protection of all children, in a world of changes and chances.


But I will ventre to say this, dear Zoe: as you grow up, every single person you ever meet who knew your mama will attest that they are better for having known her, that she shed light in this world. This is a rare gift indeed. Nothing can replace her physical presence, but she leaves a golden legacy of love in your heart and mind. May it help sustain you always and urge you on to your own high endeavors.

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