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Princeton’s First Black Valedictorian

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Nicholas Johnson, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator from Montreal, has been named valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2020.

Johnson is the first black valedictorian in Princeton’s history.

He said he appreciates the encouragement he has received at Princeton in developing his academic interests. The University’s support through opportunities including international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom were especially significant, Johnson said. But most of all, he treasures his relationships with his classmates.

“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,” Johnson said.

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 in fall 2020.

Along with his concentration in operations research and financial engineering, he is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learningapplied 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.

This work, supervised by Miklos Racz, assistant professor of operations research and financial engineering, also has applications to public health interventions designed to increase adherence to strict social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Johnson has another ongoing research project supervised by Yacine Ait-Sahalia, the Otto A. Hack ’03 Professor of Finance and professor of economics, in which he is developing a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion.

During his junior year, Johnson conducted an independent research project, “Generating Privacy Preserving Synthetic Datasets,” supervised by Prateek Mittal, associate professor of electrical engineering, in which he developed a machine learning system to more robustly anonymize datasets than existing alternatives. He presented this work at the spring 2019 Electrical Engineering Symposium and the 2019 Center for Statistics and Machine Learning Symposium.

Among his other professors, William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies, were also influential.

“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.”

In addition to serving as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, Johnson is editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy. He is a member of Whitman College, where he has served as a residential college adviser. He is also a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018.

As a rising senior, 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.

Johnson is a graduate of Selwyn House School and attended Marianopolis College, both in Westmount, Quebec.

By Denise Valente, Princeton University, Office of Communications

Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development

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Apple Pre-Ed Scholars Program

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As a highly regarded HBCU, Huston-Tillotson University (located in the heart of Austin, Texas) is proud to announce our Apple Pre-Ed Scholars Program! 

The Apple Pre-Ed Scholars Program, housed within Huston-Tillotson University’s African American Male Teacher Initiative funded by Apple Inc., provides one year of scholarship support to high-achieving HT freshmen who intend to pursue a career in Education.  

Scholars are selected on the basis of financial need, academic performance, demonstration of leadership, commitment to service, and dedication to pursuing a career in the Education field.  

Total award will cover all tuition, fees, room and board for an academic year. Scholarships are eligible for max three-year renewal, dependent on meeting scholarship requirements, persistence towards graduation, demonstrated financial need, and availability of funding.  

Who can apply? To be eligible to apply, applicants must:  

– Be a citizen, legal permanent resident, or national of the United States  

– Identify ethnically as African American, or Black  

– Identify as male – Classified as a Freshman  

– Be currently enrolled and in good standing at Huston-Tillotson University  

– Minimum 2.5 GPA on an unweighted 4.0 scale  

– ACT Composite Score of 18, or greater; or SAT score 900, or greater (Combined Evidence Based Reading and Writing, and Math)  

– Program of study in Education  

– Demonstrate a strong academic record and evidence of persistence  

– Exemplify leadership and demonstrate a passion for improving representation of underrepresented groups in the field of Education  

– Have demonstrated financial and unmet need as measured by the university 

Attached to this correspondence, you will find the Apple Pre-Ed Scholars Application as well as an informational flyer for announcement purposes. 

Questions may be directed to:   

Dr. Jennifer Miles, HTU’s Director of the Center of Academic Innovation; jpmiles@htu.edu 

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Where Will You Be For History?

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021 marks the day for the 59th Inaugural Ceremony. This historical event has been witnessed by Americans for over 200 years. The moment marks the transition of power for the President and Vice President of the United States. From the first Inauguration of George Washington, in New York City, in 1789, to the present, the 59th Inaugural Ceremonies, the Swearing-In Ceremonies represent both national renewal and continuity of leadership. Several Inaugurations have held great importance and significance including the swearing in of Barack Hussein Obama II, the 44th President of the United States, but what makes this year’s inauguration so remarkable? Well, as we reflect on the current time we are in; a divided nation where hate is at the forefront of the actions of many American citizens, COVID has devastated the population, historic election voting percentages have reigned, the inaugural events are closed to the public, and where gender and race have for far too long been the basis as to why some have been denied opportunities to fulfill “positions of power,” this milestone marks another step towards us becoming “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.” Kamala Harris already made history when she was elected as the first Black and South Asian woman elected Vice President, however January 20, 2021 her role will be official and she will officially be Madame Vice President.

The ceremony traditionally begins with a procession to the capitol beginning about 11:00 ET. Harris will be sworn in first by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and Latina Justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. (She was nominated by President Barack Obama.). Joe Biden will be sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts followed by remarks from both.

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Remembering Mr. Clark

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Morgan Freeman portrayed him well in the 1989 classic film “Lean On Me.” He was the baseball and bullhorn toting, HNIC, firm and forward thinking principal of the then troubled Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. Joe Louis Clark, the real ‘Mr. Clark’ a.k.a. ‘Crazy Joe’ died in his Florida home at the age of 82. He was loved and hated by his critics because of his actions and his untraditional methods used to clean house and turn the school around. Mr. Clark earned national coverage including President Ronald Reagan offering him a White House policy advisor position after his success at the high school.

Mr. Joe Clark changed the game and set the example for turning around failing urban schools by offering children, educators, parents and community hope while maintaining high expectations. He will forever be remembered especially in the lives of those he challenged and changed. RIP Mr. Clark.

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