Biology doctoral candidate merges love of science and environmental advocacy
APRIL 16, 2023 BY ERIN GARRETT
Mom, scientist, firefighter, environmental advocate: any of these titles could be used to describe University of Mississippi student Alicia L. Arrington-Thomas, the latter of which made possible by a recent award from the Ecological Society of America.
The second-year doctoral student in biological sciences has received the ESA’s Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award, allowing her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Capitol Hill and discuss science policy with legislators in April.
“I am so excited to travel to D.C. because I want to be a voice for Mississippi and for our communities,” Arrington-Thomas said. “We have intense regulatory and environmental issues that can be addressed through policy and federal support of ecological research.”
Offered each year, the award gives its recipients hands-on training and science policy experience, including interacting with congressional decision-makers, federal agency officials and ecologists who work in the science and public policy arena.
Arrington-Thomas has a wide range of interests in the realm of ecology and conservation, but one area rises above the rest: fire.
At the university, Arrington-Thomas is studying fire ecology under the advisement of biology professor Stephen Brewer. She is researching prescribed burns and their positive impacts on the environment.
“As a trained firefighter, Alicia has had an interest in fire for quite a while,” Brewer said. “She reached out to me and wanted to learn more about the science and ecology of fire.”
Arrington-Thomas’s dissertation project is titled, “Effects of Groundcover Species and Tree Leaf Litter on Fuel Consumption in Fire-Dependent Oak Woodlands.”
The Los Angeles native’s journey to Ole Miss has not been easy. As a child, she struggled with dyslexia. The learning disability affected her grades during her freshman year of college at Tuskegee University.
“I had a 1.3 GPA, but they didn’t give up on me,” Arrington-Thomas said. “The dean told me they wouldn’t let me go home without a degree, so I was placed on academic probation.
“I knew they couldn’t do it for me. I pushed through and graduated in 2002 with two bachelor’s degrees in environmental science and plant and soil science.”
Arrington-Thomas’s first experience in fire management came during her time at Tuskegee when she was hired as a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park. She says it was a pivotal moment in her life that shaped both the trajectory of her career and subsequent educational experiences.
Rick DeLappe, her supervisor at Yellowstone, selected Arrington-Thomas from a Tuskegee recruitment list for one of two funded positions with the park.
“The day I picked Alicia up at the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, airport, she had no idea what was about to happen – and neither did I,” DeLappe said. “When we got to the south end of Yellowstone, there was still five feet of snow on the ground. I don’t think she had ever even seen snow before.
“Alicia started off at Yellowstone without any idea of what it would take to be a ranger, and she has since embodied that spirit for an entire career. That determination and pride in her work ethic alone is enough to earn respect and an award. I am proud to be associated with Alicia in every way there is. She is one of the best people I have ever had the chance to work with and know.”
After Arrington-Thomas enrolled in the Ole Miss biology department, she was named an SEC Emerging Scholar. The selective program prepares doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers for a potential career in academia by providing professional development and networking opportunities.
Her most recent award from the ESA is particularly meaningful for Arrington-Thomas, who lives in Jackson and has been navigating the city’s water crisis with her husband and three children. For months, the city’s residents have lacked reliable access to clean water.
“In my application, I wrote the honest truth about my experience,” she said. “I told them my kids can’t brush their teeth without using a water bottle. We have to warm up water and use a bucket to shower. Sometimes we don’t even have enough water pressure to flush the toilet.
“These are the kinds of issues I want to take to Washington, D.C. Our Southern cities like Jackson are suffering from the lack of regulations for environmental issues like water and air quality. We’re pointing fingers instead of addressing the problems.”
Brewer said he hopes Arrington-Thomas will gain insight into policy and be able to combine that with what she’s learning about fire ecology in his lab.
“This will allow her to have a comprehensive understanding of what all is involved with proper, environmentally-sound fire management,” he said. “She is a very hard worker, and she really tries to go above and beyond the minimum of what’s necessary to get things done.