Nicholas Johnson named Princeton's first Black valedictorian

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Nicholas Johnson (Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development)

Urban News Staff Reports

History is made at Princeton University as Nicholas Johnson of Montreal, Canada is named the first Black valedictorian in the Ivy League's 274-year history.

Johnson is an operations research and financial engineering concentrator and said he appreciates the encouragement he's received at Princeton in developing his academic interests.

“My favorite memories of my time at Princeton are memories of time spent with close friends and classmates engaging in stimulating discussions — often late at night — about our beliefs, the cultures and environments in which we were raised, the state of the world, and how we plan on contributing positively to it in our own unique way,” he said.

Along with his concentration in operations research and financial engineering, Johnson is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing.

His research has focused primarily on sequential decision-making under uncertainty, optimization, and the ethical considerations that must be made given the increasing role of algorithmic decision-making systems.

His senior thesis, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” focuses on developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to solve a network-based optimization problem that models a community-based preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada.

During his time a Princeton, he participated in international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. 

Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

He previously interned at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group, developing and implementing a novel optimization technique under the supervision of Aleksandr Sahakyan, principal investigator and group head. He presented the project at Princeton’s inaugural Day of Optimization in October 2018 and at the 25th Conference of African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences in June 2019, where his project was recognized with the Angela E. Grant Poster Award for Best Modeling.

Johnson has interned at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, and he participated in Whitman’s exchange program with Morningside College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in March 2017.

Among his academic honors, Johnson is a recipient of the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen in the School of Engineering, a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, and co-recipient with Sommers of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in fall 2019 and to Tau Beta Pi in 2018, where he served as president of the Princeton Chapter in 2019.

William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies, are just a few of the professors that inspired him.

“Professor Massey inspired me by sharing his ever-present love for operations research and through his advocacy for Black and African American students in STEM fields,” Johnson said. “He encouraged me to pursue increasingly ambitious research projects and to share my work at academic conferences. Professor Gutarra introduced me to academic writing during my first-year Writing Seminar. She was instrumental in helping me develop my skills as an effective academic writer and communicator, and she motivated me to become a writing fellow.”

Johnson plans to spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group before beginning Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in fall 2020.

Among the many good wishes he's been receiving, former First Lady, and 1985 Princeton graduate, Michelle Obama is also hailing Johnson on his historic accomplishment.

"This Princeton alum is so proud of you, Nick! Congratulations on becoming valedictorian—and making history. I have a feeling this is just the beginning for you, and I cannot wait to see everything you continue to achieve," Obama said.

Princeton will hold a virtual commencement for the Class of 2020 on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in which Johnson will participate. An in-person ceremony will be held in May 2021.

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