Campus remembers graduate student Ian Santino

The landscape architecture student and celebrated teaching assistant was close to completing his master’s degree.

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Campus is mourning the loss of Ian Santino, a UW-Madison graduate student who passed away on November 28, 2017, from liver failure due to colorectal cancer. 

Santino, 31, was close to completing his master’s degree in landscape architecture, with a focus on restoration ecology. He also served as a teaching assistant for Zoology 151 and 152 for several years, and was recognized for his innovative teaching methods through a campus-wide TA award earlier this year.

Santino began graduate school in 2012 and was diagnosed with stage-four cancer in mid-2014. His thesis centered on ways to improve establishment of an endangered plant, the prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya). He was also interested in permaculture, agroecology and inventive ways to integrate native plans into agriculture and cultivated landscapes.

“Ian found several populations of the bush clover on sites where he was given permission to do the pruning, one of which was the Biocore Prairie on the UW’s Lakeshore Nature Preserve — a place he immediately fell in love with,” says Evelyn Howell, Santino’s advisor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture. “Ian had completed all of his course work and his data collection and was well on his way to analyzing the results when he was taken from us much too soon. We had all really hoped he would have been given the chance to complete his degree.” 

Howell says Santino was a “fine budding restoration ecologist” as well as a friend and mentor to others on campus. “Even as he was facing the many challenges of his illness, he went out of his way to befriend and support others,” she says. “I will remember him always as a kind, caring person, an excellent TA who served as a mentor to many a talented scholar.” 

Jeremiah Yahn, faculty associate in the Department of Integrative Biology, says Santino was a gifted educator who always went the extra mile for his students and colleagues.

“He was remarkably creative, innovating unique ways to present challenging material that resulted in increased learning [comprehension] for his students,” he says. “Ian made all of his brilliant contributions seemingly effortlessly all the while being an incredibly kind-hearted and genuine person.”

Fellow landscape architecture graduate student Maddie Dumas refers fondly to Santino as “the only graduate student I've ever met who could juggle a horse chestnut as easily as classify it taxonomically. 

Dumas says she and Santino bonded “in botany classes that turned us loose in the field,” adding that they’d happily spend hours trying to identify every plant by common name, Latin name and family.

“Ian would have stayed on at UW to complete his Ph.D. if he had gotten the chance,” she says. “His intellectual curiosity was unquenchable. Outside of academics he always wanted to know how things worked and why.”

Ian made all of his brilliant contributions seemingly effortlessly all the while being an incredibly kind-hearted and genuine person.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, on July 17, 1986, Santino grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, but also lived in Northern Ireland and Spain, and spent time in Boston, New Hampshire and North Carolina. He earned a double major in environmental studies and biology from Oberlin College in 2009. Prior to moving to Madison, Santino worked as an urban garden educator for Toledo Grows and planted thousands of trees for the New York City Parks Department as a part of it A Million Trees NYC program.

Santino lived with his brother, Will, also a graduate student at UW-Madison. Will says his brother lived “an incredibly full and passionate life,” one rooted in a love of nature.

“Ian once said that death is a creative act, of energy releasing into the world like a burst of sunlight to be absorbed into other living things,” Will and his family said in a statement. “Ian will be buried naturally with a bur oak planted over him, so that he can become part of the natural world he loved.”

A burial service, the first of many celebrations of Santino’s life, will be held at the Farley Center in Verona on December 2 at 2 p.m., followed by a potluck including many of Santino’s favorite vegan foods.

In lieu of gifts and flowers, Santino requested that donations be made to the Center for Biological Diversity or The Conservation Fund. Donations are also being accepted for an oak tree to be planted in the UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve next to the Biocore Prairie where Santino conducted his field work for his research.