Alumna Alexis Jackson takes the lessons from the Pacific Coast near UCSC to the environmental policy tables of California

Alexis Jackson (Ph.D. ’14, ecology and evolutionary biology)

Alexis Jackson is coming up on an anniversary in her professional life.

Jackson, a 2014 Ph.D. graduate of UC Santa Cruz’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program, has been with The Nature Conservancy for nearly seven years, and is currently the California Chapter’s Ocean Policy and Plastics Lead based out of San Francisco. Looking back to her time at UCSC from 2008 to 2014 during her master’s and doctoral work, Jackson reflects on how those experiences helped her to get to this point.

When she first arrived at UCSC, the Oakland native had just graduated from Yale University, where she received her B.S. in ecology and evolutionary biology. Returning to the West Coast from Connecticut, she was grateful to have the Pacific Ocean mere steps away from campus, all while enjoying the bounty of educational opportunities on her way to a doctorate. 

“It was amazing to be by the coast, but it was also incredible to have the Marine Lab [the Seymour Marine Discovery Center], which is absolutely breathtaking,” she said.

Granted, moving from a larger city to a town of just 45 percent of New Haven’s population, Jackson had to adjust to the smaller town dynamics.

“For me, it was important to find a city that was liberal and open-minded—I’m a city person, and Santa Cruz is very small,” she said, also noting the lack of diversity among its population. “It took some time and concerted effort to find my place here.”

In the first few years, Jackson would travel back and forth between Santa Cruz and Oakland to partake in her hometown’s larger communities of color, dance and arts communities, and the like. Over time, she was able to find more folks in Santa Cruz that offered up those experiences, which helped her to balance her place in the community both inside the lab and out.

“How you nurture the other aspects of your personality and individual being are equally important to your studies,” she said. “When I found the dance community here, I started to feel at home.”

On campus, Jackson was a member of Dr. Giacomo Bernardi’s Lab, focusing on the population genetics of fishes with her fellow doctoral candidates. Under his leadership, she saw the vast impact of the lab’s work through the PANGAS project, in which oceanographers, geneticists and ecologists gathered information on commercially important species in Baja California, which led to more data to guide the development of fishery management plans.

“Dr. Bernardi’s Lab stuck out to me because he was the intersection of doing applied research and making sure that that research was entering spaces where it could be impactful, to have fishery managers making decisions,” she said.

Through both taking part in and witnessing this work, Jackson saw the work through “the greater lens” of the science’s value, and how science could be packaged to inform management decisions. That led her to work with faculty members in those labs, including Bernardi, to see the impact of the work on the greater conversations and policy aims surrounding the conservation efforts.

She further worked with other committee members that were from outside of Santa Cruz, which Jackson believes made her work and her professional trajectory all the better: “I think the collaborative space is really key for impactful conversation—one organization or institution cannot move the needle on any given issue.”

She continued: “It’s how we layer our skill sets and strengths to really amplify impact.”

As she approached the completion of her academic work, Jackson evaluated her next steps. She had a strong resume, had received grants, and had a good network with others in the field. She considered a postdoctoral track at first, but soon decided that entering the policy and management space may be a better decision for how her work can make an impact.

“If I’m going to be an impactful researcher, I need to actually know what it’s like to be on the other side, for the people receiving this information,” she said.

Jackson received a one-year Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington, D.C., and then joined the team full-time as a Fishery Management Specialist. From there, she joined The Pew Charitable Trusts as a senior associate focused on international ocean policy. She returned to the West Coast in 2017 to join The Nature Conservancy, where she’s been ever since.

“The fellowship gave me a concrete way to transition into that new sector, and helped me to come in with an established network that was credible and to open doors,” she said. “While we had some sense as grad students of the importance of networking, I really learned from my time in D.C. that your work can be important outright—but if it’s not in the places and with the people that matter, it’s not as impactful as we hope.”

At The Nature Conservancy, Jackson has combined her skill sets from UCSC, NOAA and Pew to engage her existing networks for TNC’s continued work on ensuring best available science is integrated into management and policies impacting coastal and marine ecosystems off California. Her thoughtful engagement with key decision-makers and stakeholders on a range of issues from fisheries to habitat restoration and plastic pollution is what led to her current role in overseeing the ocean policy portfolio for the California Oceans program, as well as a recent gubernatorial appointment to the California Ocean Protection Council. 

As the lead, she oversees an interdisciplinary team focusing on policy research and strategic planning toward policies that reduce plastic pollution, advance sustainable fisheries management and promote island resilience and ocean recovery.

While she has not had many touchpoints with UCSC since graduating in 2014, Jackson still sees some names of her former professors and fellow cohort members pop up in her work and in her networks. Additionally, now residing in Oakland, she keeps up with her mentors from UCSC and tries to visit the area at least once a year, including a 10-year reunion with her Ph.D. advisor and labmates earlier this year.

“It still counts for a lot to hear from them, that they’re proud of me,” she said. “Everyone is progressing in exciting and different ways, but the skillsets we gained and the camaraderie we had, that’s still a strong community for us.”