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Alex Van Oss was born in Kuala Lumpur to diplomats working in the US Foreign Service, and grew up in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the US. In college he majored in biology and began graduate studies in microbiology, but switched to journalism, working for years at NPR and as an independent reporter, producer, and editor. A lifelong painter and student of Russian, from 2003-2014 he coordinated Caucasus Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.