His research could help speed up containment of pandemics such as COVID-19
TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 17, 2021) – University of South Florida pure mathematics and microbiology student Alexander Mercier is making history as the first Rhodes Scholarship finalist at the university. The double major will participate in his final interview with scholarship evaluators later this month and learn the outcome a few weeks later.
The selection of Mercier as a finalist reflects the breadth of qualities the Rhodes selection committee seeks in candidates — outstanding intellect, character, leadership and commitment to service.
“The Rhodes Scholarship committee looks for four criteria in a candidate: academic excellence, energy to use one’s talents to the fullest, duty and sympathy to the weak, and a moral force of character,” Mercier said. “I am honored that they found those four criteria in my application, and I am truly grateful to USF mentors and others for allowing and encouraging me to live these ideals to their fullest.”
Rhodes scholars spend up to three years in graduate studies at the University of Oxford in England as part of the oldest and perhaps most recognized scholarship program in the world. Mercier is one of 20 finalists for two scholarships that will be awarded within U.S. District 7, which includes Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Rhodes selection committee awards 100 scholarships worldwide each year, 32 to students in the United States.
“Alexander embodies the University of South Florida’s commitment to providing our students with opportunities to perform cutting-edge research during their undergraduate experience,” said Ralph C. Wilcox, USF provost and executive vice president. “He is richly deserving of the consideration he has received from the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee as USF’s first finalist for this prestigious award.”
When Mercier was a child, his mother was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which triggered in him an interest in epidemiology, the study of disease, and eventually led him to focus some of his most prominent research at USF on preparing for the next pandemic.
Working with USF faculty researchers, Mercier discovered his interest in network sparsification, a method that employs mathematics to quickly identify important connections in the spread of disease. The research could help scientists accelerate containment of pandemics such as COVID-19. Mercier later helped co-create a metric to produce a standard method of evaluation for network sparsification, something that didn’t previously exist.
“Alex aspires to pioneer new approaches to modeling disease spread by integrating data science, mathematics, biology and economics. The Rhodes Scholarship would help to build lifelong networks with other scholars and world leaders who, like Alex, care about using knowledge for social good,” said Sayandeb Basu, director of USF’s Office of National Scholarships.
Mercier’s work at USF and extracurricular interests are diverse. He is president of both the USF Mathematical Association of America Putnam Chapter and the Russian Culture and Language Association. Mercier has also served meals to homeless individuals at the Trinity Café in Tampa, performed piano arrangements at church fundraisers to address food insecurity and is an accomplished artist and photographer.
Mercier was one of two USF students to be named a 2021 Goldwater Scholar, the most prestigious award in the country for excellence in undergraduate scientific research.
A student in the Judy Genshaft Honors College, Mercier is a finalist for another international award, the Marshall Scholarship, which also funds graduate study in the United Kingdom. Marshall selections will be announced later this fall.
About the University of South Florida
The University of South Florida is a high-impact global research university dedicated to student success. Over the past 10 years, no other public university in the country has risen faster in U.S. News and World Report’s national university rankings than USF. Serving more than 50,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, USF is designated as a Preeminent State Research University by the Florida Board of Governors, placing it in the most elite category among the state’s 12 public universities. USF has earned widespread national recognition for its success graduating under-represented minority and limited-income students at rates equal to or higher than white and higher income students. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference. Learn more at www.usf.edu.