Alumni Spotlight: Alexis Garretson

Mercatus alum Alexis Garretson (GMU ’18) chose to study biology because she likes thinking about complex systems, and was originally drawn to George Mason University because of its partnership with the Smithsonian.

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 undefinedundefined graduated in 2018 with a major in Biology and minors in Public Health, Global Conservation, and Economics. After finishing the first year of her master’s degree at Brigham Young University (BYU), she returned to Mason to complete her MS in Biology, concentrated in Evolutionary Biology.

As an undergraduate, Alexis took advantage of several research opportunities. Those included three Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) projects, the Mason Biology Department’s research semester, and a semester at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation. In one of her OSCAR projects, she examined vulnerabilities in communities after Hurricane Katrina alongside her mentor, Hayek Program scholar Stefanie Haeffele. The project opened her eyes to “the ways that human systems are really integrated with environmental systems.”

[Economics] has a lot to tell biology, and vice versa

At BYU, Alexis focused on agent-based modeling. Her work involved collecting data on the distribution of European green crabs in the rocky intertidal zone of the Gulf of Maine, then using that data to compare the predictive power of model types that varied by their emphasis on the actions of individual agents. “I used a lot of those ideas from [Elinor] Ostrom and ideas from the Austrians – like Hayek’s complexity stuff was really applicable,” Alexis says.

In fact, she says, “[economics] has a lot to tell biology, and vice versa”: “If you zoom out, they’re both fields that like to think about emergent processes that happen in complex systems of agents making decisions. Whether those are cognizant decisions or biological decisions, it’s sort of the same framework.”

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Because I’m really into this evolution of thought stuff, I got to bring up the history of evolutionary thought in a way that a lot of the other biology students didn’t know.

Alexis found that the Mercatus Undergraduate Fellowship complemented her focus on biology. “I wasn’t really a theory-minded person before I really stepped into the [economic] world,” she says. “[The fellowship] helped me think, what are the assumptions that underlie the type of research that I do? Which isn’t necessarily something that’s that common in the natural sciences.”

One of her particularly memorable experiences from the fellowship was a discussion of Hayek Program scholar Christopher Coyne’s book, After War, about the effects of U.S. intervention in foreign wars. Some of the Undergraduate Fellows were from countries that had recently experienced war, so “getting their perspectives on how they felt about U.S. intervention was really, really interesting and really impactful,” Alexis says. At the fellowship events that Hayek Program scholars attended, she adds, “Getting that face time with the scholars to ask them, ‘What did you mean when you wrote this?’ and ‘What are you thinking this applies to?’ -- I thought that was really awesome.”

She credits the fellowship with sharpening her ability to articulate her own positions and better understand where other people are coming from. “I think it enriches everyone’s experience to have additional viewpoints, especially if you don’t agree politically or you don’t agree topically or you’re not as familiar with the input. I also think it will make you better in your own field. It gives you more knowledge to pull from, more viewpoints or glasses to put on that you can view your own work and view the work of your colleagues through in the future.”

Those interdisciplinary “glasses” enabled Alexis to engage humanities-focused undergraduates in a biology class for non-majors at BYU, where she captured attention by explaining evolution’s history of thought as well as its biological theory. “Because I’m really into this evolution of thought stuff, I got to bring up the history of evolutionary thought in a way that a lot of the other biology students didn’t know,” she says.

During the 2018-2019 school year, Alexis participated in the Mercatus Center Frédéric Bastiat Fellowship, which allowed her to continue the interdisciplinary conversations that she enjoyed as a Undergraduate Fellow. “I went from being an undergrad where I did everything I wanted to do, to being a very specialized graduate student -- so I pretty much only talked to behavioral ecologists and quantitative ecologists. The Bastiat Fellowship was a great opportunity to interact with people that are still interested in [policy],” she says. This year (2019-2020) she is continuing her immersion in interdisciplinary and policy-relevant research through the Bastiat Fellowship research sequence, where she will spend the year writing a chapter for publication in an edited volume.

When asked if she followed her five-year plan, Alexis answers quickly, “No, not at all.” In fact, she says, “I think it’s only really recently that all the different… things that I picked up along the way have really come together in my research plan.”

One example is her current graduate work at Mason, which grew out of her undergraduate biology research project. As an undergraduate, she examined the impact of the timing of the fall colors in eastern national parks on park visitation rates. Now, she is using museum specimens to create a long-term dataset of fall color changes, with the goal of examining the potential impact of climate change on fields such as agriculture, forestry, national parks, and tourism.

Alexis recently received the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and is currently applying to PhD programs in bioinformatics. Looking forward, she says, “I’m really excited about… integrating all those little pieces of things that I picked up along the way into what I’ll end up doing down the line.”