Minor: Studio Art
Hometown: Skagway, Alaska
Fun Fact: Loves to watch B movies like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Killer Tomatoes”
Right brain, left brain
What do sculpting works of art from a block of clay and growing A549 epithelial lung cells have in common? Just ask University of Alaska Anchorage biochemistry major and studio arts minor Alexis Grieser. The small town Skagway, Alaska native is taking her UAA experience into her own hands, molding her education by fusing her passions for both art and science.
“I’ve always loved science and I’ve always loved art, ever since I was a little kid, those are my two things. I was never much of a history person, but if I could draw or go study a leaf, I was the happiest kid in the world,” says Alexis laughing.
The petite blond laughs a lot and her face lights up talking about the research she’s conducting with Jason Burkhead, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. It’s hard not to get pulled into her enthusiasm as she talks about her courses at UAA and her decision to study two education tracks seemingly on the opposite ends of the spectrum. But she explains that art and science are much closer than one might imagine.
“Art helps you understand things better, it allows you to look from different perspectives when you analyze things,” she says thoughtfully. “I think it’s really helpful to have an artistic background and work in the scientific fields because it gives you more perspective—and the more perspective you have, the better you will be in whatever field you choose to go into.”
As a third year biochemistry major, Alexis is constantly challenged and pushed to the limits of what she believes she can handle. She says art gives her an extra edge when it comes to critical thinking and solving difficult problems. After she graduates in another two years—typically a biochemistry major is a five-year degree track—she hopes to get into the WWAMI program, sign up for Doctors Without Borders and ultimately land in Alzheimer’s research.
Like many people’s passions in life, Alexis’ interests took root when she was a little girl in Skagway. Her summer days were spent tagging alongside her dad on his hunting trips; she would look at and observe the plants and animals they saw along the way.
“Ever since I was a little girl my favorite thing to do was to catch bugs—I still love catching bugs!” Alexis exclaims.
Searching for the right path
As time went on and Alexis went from little girl to preteen to teen, she struggled with finding a clear direction in life. In high school, classes came easy and she didn’t have to put much effort into studying. She still loved science and art, actively pursuing both and making time to attend the Southeast Alaska Art Festival each year it was offered. But even then, she still felt a little lost.
“I went to the Alaska Summer Research Academy up in Fairbanks for the bio-medicine program, and then I was just kind of like—I want to be a hobo,” says Alexis, shrugging her shoulders. “My whole junior and senior year of high school that was my plan. To go be a hobo in Portland and see what it would be like—I don’t know, I thought it would be an experience.”
Needless to say, Alexis’ aspirations at the time were never fulfilled because her desire for wanderlust soon caved to the voice of reason from an empathetic but encouraging teacher.
“I was in my Life Skills class senior year and I had done my presentation on how I was going to be a hobo and my Life Skills teacher said, ‘Well you should probably come up with an actual plan for a career just in case,’” Alexis says. His advice resonated with her.
Her grandfather had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“That was really interesting to me because it directly affected my life,” she says. “I started looking into it and I realized that I wanted to go to med school and I wanted to do Alzheimer’s research.”
For Alexis, the gears started turning quickly, her life path suddenly becoming clear as she realized attending college was going to open up a world of opportunities and she could combine her two passions for art and science into an education.
“I’ve always loved science, I loved chemistry and physics—I loved all these things. It just didn’t culminate until the last bit of my senior year that this is what I wanted to do.”
Heads or tails?
So, Alexis, like her fellow classmates, had a life plan, and was excited to attend Oregon State University. She soon realized the cost of out-of-state tuition was much more than she could afford. She had to switch gears and, marching to the beat of her own drum, she left the final decision to a coin toss—literally.
“I was planning on going to UAF, I mean UAF is a great science school, but then I heard about the nursing program at UAA and its connection to WWAMI,” Alexis says. “I honestly just flipped a coin, it was the day before registration was closing, and I flipped a coin, it landed on tails and UAA it was!”
Alexis originally started as a biology major, but found she was drawn to chemistry more. She admits that biology or the natural sciences might be a better way to go, especially for keeping your GPA up, but she has fully embraced the fact that she spends most of her time buried in biochemistry homework and reading.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s a big change because I never had to study in high school, but being a bio-chem major you have to study—all the time,” says Alexis. “Which is fine, I like studying.”
She loves chemistry so much, in fact, that she’s now added research and the SMART Outreach program to her expanding to-do list. Alexis says it’s important for students to take advantage of what UAA has to offer and wants to help her classmates and youth in the community be as excited about science as she is.
Finding her niche
“UAA is so great because there are so many opportunities as an undergrad to do research. I could have done research my freshman year if I wanted to,” says Alexis. “You have to be involved, if you’re not involved in what your university is doing you’re not getting as high caliber an education as you could.”
Although Alexis’ load is stacked a mile high and she has about two years left before she finishes her degree here, she’s happy she made UAA her home away from home. It was a bit of a transition from small-town life in Skagway to the fast-paced big city, but she’s navigating Anchorage like a pro and has found her niche happily pursuing a life filled with science and art.
“I’m really glad I came here, it was a good decision,” Alexis says smiling. “I probably would have picked UAA even if the coin toss hadn’t worked out.”