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Mac Gagne | 2019 AGS Summer Fellow

Mac GagneFinal Entry: August 25, 2019

This summer, I had the opportunity to tackle research in two different domains: academia and the industrial sector. This summer not only allowed me to better understand these two different perspectives on research but gave me insight into the overlap between them.

By pursuing my personal research project with the Duke Lemur Lab, I was able to understand the independence of conducting my own research and serving as a project lead. At the beginning of the summer, I had proposed my work to the Atlanta Primate Language Research Center, where I had previously worked as an intern under Dr. Charlie Menzel. Having had my research accepted there, I began to wonder if observing chimps and capuchins would be a large enough sample size. I soon looked into research opportunities at the Duke Lemur Lab, which hosted around 20 species of non-human primates. After contacting the lead researcher, my project proposal was also accepted. Faced with a decision between Atlanta and Durham, I thought to myself “why not choose both”! Thus, while all my research this summer was conducted in Durham, I anticipate traveling to Atlanta to conduct observations during fall break of this year on chimps and capuchins.

In pursuing my work with the Lemur Center, I was able to explore a highly underdeveloped research nook- the overlap between strategic defense research and evolutionary anthropology. Having fallen in love with understanding human behavior in Rosa Li’s Decision Science 101 course, I realized just how heavily the subject relied on primatology studies to better understand how thought processes evolved over time. I began to wonder if defense strategies (i.e. the motivations that cause an animal to defend itself and how they consistently go about doing so) could be studied through primatology from an evolutionary perspective as well. My work this summer allowed me to conduct the initial observations needed to write a paper on the evolution of defensive behavior in non-human primates, which I will mathematically model in my upcoming game theory independent study course with Hubert Bray as a final project. Thus, while my initial conclusions are not entirely finished, I made some exciting observations that I cannot wait to build upon.

The best way to summarize my findings would be in the topics of dominancy hierarchies, territory defense, and economic value. Primarily, I found the most violent of conflicts (i.e. the most developed and aggressive defense strategies) occurred in groups where a fight for dominance was ongoing. In lemurs, females are the dominant sex and as such one family group my team and I researched depicted the eldest daughter fighting to steal control over the family from her mother. Additionally, my research group made countless observations of spats between territories in separate social groups of the same species. This was notable because it depicted the evolution of border politics. Many of the strategies we observed (such as patrolling, verbal threats, and displays of aggression) are quite parallel to strategies used by humans to defend their nation’s borders. Heavy parallels were drawn in one case between two groups of Catta and the Korean demilitarized zone- I hope to expand more upon this in my final project. Finally, additional disputes were observed over what I would call economic value, which in this case was often food. This displays the early development of utility theory, in which I can actively break down how defensive strategies arise with ties to primate concepts of value (which is more often than not food). I’d be quite happy to share my final research with anyone should they be interested.

My summer however also consisted of an internship in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Quite excitedly, I was invited back to intern for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) where I got to work with the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group (DIIG) once again. Since last summer, DIIG has been a pillar of excellence in understanding quantitative policy research. Having come into the position with significantly improved coding skills since last summer, I was eager to tackle new quantitative projects. As a mathematics major, I was excited to be tasked with projects regarding the conceptual design of the code at hand. At the beginning of my internship, my first project was to help debug a code that would assess the compatibility of newly created R Studio packages. In doing so, I was ensuring that newly created R program would efficiently run together and complete the desired statistical analysis of the DoD’s spending budget without glitches or bugs. Additionally, I was tasked with writing code to produce the scientific notation for a lot of the linear regressions being produced in the current research project. Personally, this was one of my favorite projects because it taught me how to produce beautiful equations through code, much like how many of my textbooks and favorite research studies format them. Throughout this all, I was also able to talk with my fellow interns about better bridging the gap between the quantitative worlds of statistics/mathematics and policy research. They both similarly regretted the lack and hesitancy (on both the sides of mathematician and political scientists) to expand into a more interdisciplinary understanding of the two subjects. We both shared our experiences in trying to bridge this gap, as well as developed new plans of action to make strides in our personal research to increase the interdisciplinary nature of mathematics and political science. I am furthermore incredibly grateful for my boss, Greg Sanders, for helping me learn more about what it means to lead a quantitative strategy study and for director Kath Hick’s incredible advice on how to pursue understanding strategy as a science. In total, my internship with CSIS gave me the confidence and experience I need going into this next semester to conduct my own quantitative analysis and explore the real-world applications of the many quantitative topics I learn in my courses.

While the worlds of primatology and quantitative policy research seem miles away, the combination of these two experiences melded incredibly well together for me this summer. My lemur research allowed me to explore academia and sees a lot of the decision science topics I had learned about in action while my internship allowed me to train my ability to apply quantitative research and create the connections needed to promote it in the future. With regards to this academia-industrial overlap, I’ve been so inspired by my summer that I’m partnering with American Grand Strategy to create the AGS Research Exchange Lab to debut in the 2020 Spring Semester, which will seeks to use the Duke Alumni network to connect undergraduates with industries seeking background research on current political and national security-based research. All in all, I would not have learned all I did if it weren’t for the aid I received from both American Grand Strategy and Duke’s SPIRE program- I thank both programs from the bottom of my heart for these opportunities.


Week 4: August 9, 2019

As the summer months begin to pass by, I continue to be astounded at how quickly the new school year is approaching. A once seemingly endless summer has become a blurr of travel, projects, and internships that I would have previously thought impossible at the beginning of May. Thus, as I watch many of my fellow interns leave, I still find myself contemplating what awaits when I also depart next Thursday and what all I have taken away from my summer experiences.

Due to some absences in the office, the pace at DIIG has been slower compared to last week. However, I was quite excited to finally finish de-bugging the code I had been sweating over for the past three weeks! With this new program, the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group will now be able to test previous packages created to expose data trends in DoD’s acquisition and spending budgets. By working on this code, I was able to get an incredible sense as to how all the many coding projects created by DIIG staff members interlocked and served the group’s common goal of working to better distill the defense department’s spending strategy. Never before have I had such a birds eye view of what a think tank accomplishes quantitatively- I’m quite proud to have improved a code that has taught me what is means to conduct statistical security research.

I have found that this week has had me contemplating what it means to run a think tank project independently. As both a student and a researcher, I’m quite fascinated with how my bosses coordinate both the independence of pursuing a research topic they are fascinated with while simultaneously abiding the restrictions of grants and funding from sponsors. I’m learned quite a great deal about networking while here as well- it has taught me that often the best opportunity to pursue is the one that maximizes both the team’s interest and resources equally. It relieves me to see that a think tank is a place where scholastic individuals can chase their intellectual passions while simultaneously remaining applied enough to create a net real-world benefit. I find that with both my current and last summer in question, I am falling in love more and more with the think tank world. Maybe it’s the explorer in me; maybe it’s the scholar. But nonetheless, I find the freedom and application it allows to be one of the most enticing career combinations I’ve seen.

This week, I was also able to sit down with Kath Hicks, director of CSIS’s International Security Project. As a strategy expert, Dr. Hicks was able to tell me a lot about how she sees the world of quantitative security strategy studies as opposed to the more normalized quantitative track. She was able to recommend some incredible readings tied to the use of game theory as inspired by cold war politics, and introduced me to Schelling’s work. I’m quite excited at this fact, as I am currently attempting to create a game-theory based independent study in the math department at Duke. I intend to incorporate these readings with early studies into number theory and modeling research under Dr. Hubert Bray’s advisement.

In total, this week allowed me to be quite reflective on the nature of my work and the concept of strategy in general. It was incredible to learn more about what being a part of a think tank looks like on an administrative level, and how to straddle both the industrial and academic components of conducting research at an institution like CSIS. In the coming week, I hope to broaden my ability to understand the true responsibility of strategic thinking at top think tanks like CSIS.


Week 3: August 2, 2019

Hello from week three of my internship with CSIS’s Defense Industrial Initiatives Group! Excitedly, I have a lot of happenings to discuss in this most recent entry- the first week of August proved to be a busy one for the International Security Program!

This week started out with me continuing my coding project. While I remain quite fascinated with the creation of an out-sourced testing program to be utilized with the various packages D.I.I.G. creates for data processing procedures, it was quite a lot of debugging! If anything, Monday through Wednesday was very much an experience in mental resilience. On the job, I had to be confident that I was understanding the code I was handling properly and going about sifting through the errors appropriately. Personally, it is moments of self doubt and the needed resilience to overcome this emotion that I find most academically challenging. But with dedication and a lot of questions posed to my boss and fellow interns, I’m quite nearly done debugging a very important program that will be utilized heavily in the future.

Additionally, I had the opportunity to attend a brown-bag style luncheon with International Security Program’s Kathleen Hicks. Needless to say, I have met a new icon! Kath is not only an expert in the realm of national security, but a well-spoken respect commanding leader in her own right. She is both kind and duteful- expecting and understanding. I only hope one day to develop the proficiency of leadership I see in her. Having graduated from MIT, I was fascinated to ask her more about the school’s standpoint on the intersection of mathematics and policy. I was fascinated to learn of the growing overlap between these two qualitative and quantitative fields. She truly helped ground me in my decision to study national security strategy from a mathematical standpoint even more.

Similarly, D.I.I.G. hosted an event this week which invited Bell Helicopter’s CEO Mitch Snyder to discuss industrial challenges that large defense corporations face on a daily basis. The event is part of a series entitled Main Street Defense. Working alongside my fellow intern Lindsy, we both helped aid in registration and microphone running during the conduction of the event. However, a hilarious situation played out: Mitch Snyder came to check in with me before the beginning of the event! It took me a second to realize the name said was the name we had been discussing so much in the office. My head immediately snapped up from the computer screen to see the grinning CEO quite amused with his joke- we all had a good laugh! Similarly, Lindsey and I attended an event regarding the development of Mongolia as a democratic nation and an ally to the United States. CSIS was proud to host the Mongolian president on Wednesday, and it was incredible to obtain better insight from the perspective of a country (and friend to the US) sandwiched between Russia and China. Another moment of hilarity arose- when asked to describe the Mongolian relations with China, president Khaltmaagiin Battulga said, and I translate: “I think the construction of the great wall bests describes our relationship”!

Finally, today I had the opportunity to sit down with one of my bosses, Andrew Hunter, and ask him for some career advice. Last year, I pleasantly received incredible advice discussing how one can always make a name for oneself by disagreeing with a prominent figure in academia. Little did I know at the time I would put that plan into action by joining on with Gerrymandering mathematical modeling research combatting an earlier Duke model already in existence! Needless to say, I was quite eager for some more advice. Andrew suggested that instead of just ignoring systems, theorems, or hypotheses that appear wrong due to  faulty outcome, I should work to best understand why something is wrong, and work to salvage the correct processes within it. I thought this was an incredibly wise proposition on how to not be wasteful intellectually. Additionally, I had the opportunity to bounce a new idea off Andrew that I have been working on with AGS and Peter Fever. Having proposed the idea earlier last month, I had expressed interest in creating a think tank of sorts at Duke linked to AGS. As someone conducting policy/game theory research pertinent to the defense and think tank sector currently, I am always in search of ways to get my work published. Having come to work for CSIS again however, I was informed of house cuts to current research budgets are being made due to the administration in power. With this in mind, I began wondering if undergraduate research could be utilized for think tanks who were investigating new areas and needed to build up databases of background research. Or similarly, if a tank wanted to outsource research to undergraduates, students in college would be able to obtain citation opportunities early on in their careers and work on pressing matters facing the think tank and defense communities currently. Andrew suggested the creation of a research database of sorts, allowing me to consider the idea of a research exchange laboratory of sorts. He thinks the idea is worth pursuing, and has directed me to resources within CSIS to chase the opportunity further. I also look forward to meeting with the head of the ISP program later next week to mention this idea.

Overall, it was an incredible week! I was quite thankful to have been tasked with so many responsibilities, as learning to juggle so many projects at once continues to make me a stronger delegator, leader, and scholar.


Week 2: R Packages, Defense Industrial Markets, and the Politics of Monkeying Around
July 26, 2019

This week at CSIS, I continued to work on the development of packaged for the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group (D.I.I.G.). Working under Greg Sanders, I have happily been assigned to the more quantitative side of research here at D.I.I.G. Currently, the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group works with a large data set intitled CSIS360- it contains massive amounts of information regarding the Department of Defense’s de-classified spending budgets. Currently, my fellow interns and I spend most of our time de-bugging and creating code that filters through the CSIS360 dataset- each program and package created looks at aspects of the information bank to determine statistical relevance and correlation.

This past week, I continued to educate myself on the create of packages for R studio. A package is essentially a way of combining a large source of code into one unit that can then be installed into other packages or R studio projects- it makes coding much more organized and efficient. Having learned R in my statistics courses at Duke, I was quite excited to explore a more advanced area of coding than what I had previously been used to. At first, I was nervous about my ability to complete the coding tasks- while I had created code in R before, I knew little to nothing about the syntax or structure of packages. However, I was quite glad to have the opportunity to learn about package creation on the job. Not only would it allow for me to improve my capabilities as an analyst at CSIS, but it is also a skill set I could develop for my studies at Duke. I have greatly enjoyed learning about how to neatly package data together and import it into larger programs. Currently, I am working on de-bugging one of the major testing projects that the group is working on. While de-bugging is certainly something, I find testing my time and patience, I am quite thankful for the help and guidance of my fellow interns, Lindsay and Justin. The collaborative nature of the de-bugging process is something that has saved me time and time again with coding, teaching me that it is alright to ask for help and guidance.

Earlier this week, I also worked on a twitter project in which I went through new research D.I.I.G. was producing and wrote tweets to be sent out come the release of said paper. Twitter, while quite essential to the world of many policy makers, is quite a foreign beast to me. However, upon reading the paper and drafting around 12 tweets, I was excited to hear I picked up on the main points of the study and impressed my boss! Following the project, I couldn’t help but be quite excited that he followed me on twitter- guess I should lay up on the number of memes I’ve been retweeting? Probably for the best…

While I am currently in the Washington, D.C. area, quite a lot happened during the early months of the summer. During June and early July, I had the opportunity to pursue a creative research project that both American Grand Strategy and the SPIRE fellowship programs I am involved with on campus helped fund. Having been hooked on decision science after taking Dr. Rosa Li’s 101 course this past fall, I became fascinated with how breaking down the human decision-making process exposed the strategy forwarding the decider’s intentions.  The course utilized several mathematical models, relying heavily one game theory and behavioral economics as a means of modeling the decision process. However, I was highly intrigued with the course’s use of non-human primate studies as a means of understanding the evolution of decision making. It got me wondering about how evolutionary anthropology studies could advance our understanding of defense-based strategy by evaluating the decision science of the matter. As my semester went on, I thought longer and longer about this concept.

Having interned with my Uncle at the Georgia State Primate Language Research Center (LRC) back in 2016, I had some experience with conducting primatology research. Once school let out in May, I drafted an early-stage research proposal to observe aggressive interactions between non-human primates to Sarah Brosnan of the Georgia State LRC. Dr. Brosnan is known for her incredible work economically modeling the behaviors of primates- I figured after meeting her in 2016 she would be one of the best individuals to contact. She responded and gave me some tips on pursuing the research- her work continues to be a large inspiration for this creative project. I was mentioning my major interest in this work to a friend- I described how it would be nice to go down to Atlanta, though the trouble was that the LRC wasn’t available until late August. My friend sarcastically mentioned that it was a shame Duke didn’t have one of the world’s premier primate centers…the Duke Lemur Center! I had completely forgotten! Having toured it as a part of a decision-science FOCUS class in evolutionary anthropology early my Freshman year, I contacted the director of research and pitched my observational study- happily, they accepted the proposal!  I signed up for summer housing, packed my bags up, and headed down from the cornfields of Ohio to the forests (and Lemurs!)  of North Carolina in early June, and my research project soon began!

Now you’re probably wondering- what on earth do primates have to do with politics? As discussed earlier, primatology studies are essential to understanding the evolution of how we make decisions.  They help scientists and anthropologists alike see where decisions and their motivations come from. Decision science also has an incredibly powerfu influence on national defense- if we can understand how our enemy thinks, then we can anticipate their actions and outthink them.  The basis of my research is wondering if primatology can help those in national security begin to understand how defense strategy evolves and where it comes from. Thus, while  I have studied  types of strategies, how to model strategies, and even how strategies might change over time, I was curious as to how the nature of defense strategy on a theoretical  level  even began as a concept- and what better way to study  this then to  look to our primeval relatives the primates? While I write to you today on only the story of the project’s inspiration, I will continue to share my various field observations and reports during the coming weeks while dually working at CSIS. And, I must say, there is some beauty in that duality- for as I come to better understand politics from Washington, I too find it easy to see the parallels between the wilderness of both North Carolina and the industrial defense complex.

Week 1
July 17, 2019

Sitting here at The Center for Strategic and International Studies for the second summer in a row, it’s hard not to look back at the progress I have made in only a year’s time. I am so incredibly thankful to be an American Grand Strategy Summer Fellow for a second year in a row not just because of the incredible opportunities I have received, but because of the amazing support I have been witness to during my past two years at Duke.

I came to CSIS a year ago this month to pursue my goal of understanding strategy as a science- a lifelong endeavor I hope and continue to dedicate my life too. Fascinated at an early age with how high-risk decisions ripple out across time and space to create the course of events we call history, Duke and American Grand Strategy have given me the resources to isolate this interest and make a career of it. Really and truly, I would be lost in my academic pursuit of this niche topic if it weren’t for AGS- I not only owe many of my life’s incredible opportunities to them but also the freedom to chase these dreams. With that, I came into the 2019 summer with a goal of making the absolute most of every opportunity I have had- and chasing these opportunities has not only been an physical journey from the heart of DC metropolis to the secluded forests of North Carolina, but an intellectual adventure.

Having been welcomed back at an intern at CSIS, I am currently working again with the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group. When I interviewed for the position in late May, I was quite excited to realize a return to the building felt less like a revival of a previous job and more like a homecoming. It was incredible to see the familiar faces of my previous co-workers and discuss topics like strategic statistical modeling and artificial intelligence that I loved with all my heart. As such, I was ecstatic to learn late June that I had been welcomed back to my prior position- I couldn’t wait to dive right back into the military industrial complex and get cracking. More than anything else, however, I longed to show my co-workers the incredible strides I had made in my capabilities during the prior school year.

During my past sophomore year, I made a decision to stop putting time and effort into endeavors that existed solely for the purpose of padding my resume. I figured that if I let my heart instead of my mind lead me (for once) to the subjects I was passionate about, I would never find myself in a situation I found the least bit boring. However, following one’s passion is easier said than done- especially when one’s passion leans more towards the legendarily difficult realm of the Duke Mathematics program. Existing as one of the top programs in the world for mathematics, my decision to become a math major was more than daunting- it seemed like an impossibility. Having been encouraged by my co-workers at CSIS to focus on a specialty, I loved the concept of studying strategy from a mathematical lens. I dreamed of writing equations like Nash; I didn’t just want to learn game theory, I wanted to write it. We have this culture at Duke of seeming to appear completely fine with everything that is occurring in our lives, but I don’t want to be a part of this trend. In all authenticity, my work to bridge the gap between mathematical analysis, decision science, and politics both in my academics at Duke and now in the workplace is the hardest thing I have ever done. It involves charting new territory and having unshakable confidence in the academic pursuits you are making. And while my journey is far from over, even this past first week at CSIS has been evidence of how truly beneficial it has been.

Currently, I’ve been happily working to aid in CSIS’s Defense Industrial Initiative’s project on statistically modeling defense acquisition trends…by coding, surprising enough! If you asked me to write a line of code last summer, I would have absolutely no idea where to start! But thanks to the statistics and computer science courses I took during my past year, I’m more than ready to take on the challenge. Currently, I am working to help one of my boss’s write new packages and tests in R to conduct analysis. Mathematics has taught me about creating intellectual software- it allows one to logically build a framework that supports itself from the ground up- I’m so happy to be applying these same problem-solving skills to assess how DoD goes about conducting their financial strategies.

While only one week into my internship, I’m already ecstatic about the opportunities in front of me now and that lay ahead. I plan to tackle every challenge with all my might and learn even more about the freeing world of think tanks. After a semester of hard work and a little more impatience than I’m willing to publicly admit, there’s one feeling that reverberates throughout my thoughts: I’m home.