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Undergrad makes history as USF’s first Rhodes Scholarship finalist

Mark Parker

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Alexander Mercier was the first person in USF's history to be named a Rhodes Scholarship finalist. Photo provided.

Founded in 1956, the University of South Florida had never produced a Rhodes Scholar finalist throughout its history – until Alexander Mercier came along.

Mercier’s first passions were art and music, and at age 5 he began begging his parents to take art classes. Shortly thereafter, his mother contracted a mysterious illness that was misdiagnosed due to what Mercier calls poor epidemiology research. After three years, his mother’s doctors concluded that she had Lyme Disease, a diagnosis likely dismissed due to its rarity in Mercier’s home state of California.

This unfortunate turn of events would forever alter Mercier’s trajectory in life.

“Even before I knew what the word epidemiology really meant, I sensed there was a gap; something was a mess in the field,” said Mercier. “So, fixing that or getting the field back on track has always been something that stuck with me.”

Mercier’s family moved to the Tampa Bay area when he was 11. During high school, he dual enrolled through St. Petersburg College and graduated with an associate’s degree in mathematics. From there, it came down to continuing his education in Cambridge at MIT or staying closer to his new home at USF. Mercier said he is confident he made the right decision.

“One of the deciding factors was meeting with the Honors College at USF and seeing a team of people that they had who were very willing to support students who wanted to work with them,” said Mercier. “Another was the prospect that at USF, I could perform research all four years while I was there – which I have been doing.

“Going to some of these other institutions, that’s not necessarily guaranteed because you’re just one fish amongst many big fish.”

Mercier, 21, was not just another fish at USF, becoming the first student nominated for the Rhodes Scholarship since 2016. His interest in epidemiology has also led to groundbreaking research on how to combat the next pandemic. Mercier, a senior, is a double major in pure mathematics and microbiology, with a minor in Russian.

While many of his classmates spent the summer at the beaches around St. Pete, he spent his break in St. Petersburg, Russia, learning the culture.

Mercier is also president of the USF Mathematical Association of America Putnam Chapter and the Russian Culture and Language Association. He credits having a wide base of expertise and knowledge for making him the first Rhodes finalist in school history.

In addition to his academic achievements, Mercier is also an accomplished artist and pianist. Pictured is “Unfinished,” currently displayed in the USF Judy Genshaft Honors College. Photo provided.

“I would say that for the Rhodes, the type of person they look for is usually someone who is very deep into their area of expertise but has a wide base so that they can converse with multiple types of people,” said Mercier. “This they find very attractive because they’re always looking for people who can build bridges between different disciplines or between different nations.”

Mercier said he was aware the university had not nominated anyone for the oldest and what many people consider the world’s most prestigious scholarship program since 2016.

Rhodes scholars spend up to three years of graduate studies at the University of Oxford in England. The Rhodes selection committee awards 100 scholarships worldwide each year, with 32 going to students in the United States. Mercier was named one of 20 finalists from U.S. District 7 vying for two scholarships. District 7 includes Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Despite his many achievements, Mercier said he was still surprised to learn he was named a finalist.

“Most universities never have a Rhodes Scholar,” explained Mercier. “It’s a pretty elite group of scholars, and most universities – especially public universities – have never had a Rhodes Scholar.”

Mercier relays how there was a change in leadership in USF’s Office of National Scholarships in 2016. He credits the change in leadership for leading a more concerted effort to work with the new generation of students to achieve these lofty goals, focusing on working with students like him                       over their entire academic careers.

“You don’t particularly just sit down and apply for the Rhodes Scholarship,” said Mercier. “It’s something that can be like three, four years in the making. It takes a good deal of preparation, time and care.”

Mercier made it to the final 12 candidates and noted everyone is eminently qualified at that point. Mercier  hopes being named the first finalist will lead to many more finalists – and winners- for the up-and-coming university.

“USF has been on the rise in terms of prestige for a little bit, and hopefully this nomination as a finalist … is another small step in that right direction,” he said. “Ideally, I would like to help … usher in more finalists from USF.”

Mercier is also one of two USF students, along with physics major Kelli Ann Lynch, to be named a 2021 Goldwater Scholar. The Goldwater is the most prestigious award in the country for excellence in undergraduate research.

Mercier is also a finalist for another prominent international award – the Marshall Scholarship, which also funds graduate study in the United Kingdom.

Mercier will also continue his research on network sparsification after creating a breakthrough metric to produce a standard evaluation method. This method employs mathematics to identify connections more quickly in the spread of disease, which will help to contain infectious diseases such a Covid. Mercier said his team brought the research from a concept to actual use, and they are currently submitting their work to a very prestigious academic journal.

While Mercier will go down in history as USF’s first Rhodes Scholarship finalist, he said he is most proud of the relationships he has built through his research and work with various institutes and clubs, and his ability to bring people from various backgrounds together.

“I’m a big believer that my primary role in some respect is as a mediator,” he said. “The fact that I’ve been able to live as such, and bring all of these people together towards these questions around epidemiology, is what I’m most proud of.”

Mercier wants future students to know that successful researchers let a question get under their skin and have the passion and drive to pursue the answer. Instead of comparing themselves to other people, the focus should be on nurturing that passion. He also wants people to know they can go to a school like USF, receive an excellent education and accomplish something like a Rhodes Scholarship.

“You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room,” states Mercier. “You don’t have to go to Harvard or MIT or Stanford. You can go to USF.

“You can be passionate about what you want to do and can achieve pretty much anything you set your mind to.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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    Charlie Guy

    November 24, 2021at12:01 pm

    In these very troubling & challenging times, it is so wonderful to read about such a talented young man with so much talent from our own Tampa Bay & USF!! Our future just got better!! Charlie Guy

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