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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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Turning HBCU Students into Medical Doctors

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According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 8% of medical students and 5% of physicians are Black and African American. In an effort to address this disparity, the American Heart Association, the leading public health nonprofit organization dedicated to building a world of longer, healthier lives for all, has announced that 52 students from 23 academic institutions have been selected to participate in its Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Scholars program.

The Association’s HBCU Scholars are enrolled in biomedical or other health sciences programs at their respective institutions. Through their participation in the Scholars program, they will study how the social determinants of health and other health disparities impact underserved communities. They will also participate in scientific research projects and present their findings at the end of the program.

“Since 2015, the American Heart Association HBCU Scholars program has helped change the trajectory of dozens of under-represented students in science and medicine by fostering their talent, preparedness and growth to pursue careers in biomedical science” said American Heart Association volunteer president Michelle A. Albert, M.D., M.P.H., FAHA, who is the Walter A. Haas-Lucie Stern endowed chair in Cardiology, professor of medicine and admissions dean at University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine. “As champions for health care quality and access for all, the American Heart Association is committed to building the pipeline of diverse persons in medicine and empowering the next generation of research and health care professionals.”

The program is funded by a grant provided by the Quest Diagnostics Foundation, which also supports the American Heart Association’s Hispanic Serving Institutes (HSI) Scholars Program.

“This program plays an essential role in supporting the pipeline of Black students who will increase representation and equity in the health care field,” said Mandell Jackson, vice president and general manager, Quest for Health Equity, Quest Diagnostics. “We are proud to support this next cohort of HBCU Scholars with the American Heart Association as it provides them with enriching academic and networking experiences to help them excel in their career paths.”

Accepted students are selected based on their GPA, completion of a formal application, which includes an essay, and an official recommendation from their school. During the program, scholars are paired with a mentor who works in health care or is currently performing their own relevant scientific research. They will also participate in a leadership development program and are awarded a financial stipend to help cover education-related expenses. More about the American Heart Association’s HBCU Scholars initiative can be found here.

Clinical research studies published in the American Journal of Public Health suggest that patients of color may experience uncomfortable interactions and communication barriers with their health care providers due to lack of diversity and face implicit and unconscious bias from physicians and other health care professionals. These barriers, in turn, can lower patients’ trust in the overall health care system and as a result, these patients may not complete prescribed treatments or follow-up on recommended care. Addressing this issue is a vital component of the HBCU Scholars program.

Each year, the Association seeks applications from sophomores, juniors and seniors from historically underrepresented communities who are currently enrolled in an HBCU and are interested in pursuing a professional degree in biomedical and health sciences.

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SPC Placed on Top List of HBCUs in Texas

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St. Philip’s College was named #4 on the Best Historically Black Colleges & Universities in Texas 2022 list by University Headquarters. SPC, the top two-year institution ranked on the state list, is the nation’s only college federally designated as an HBCU and Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). The top three Texas HBCUs, by ranking, are Prairie View A&M University, Huston-Tillotson University (Austin) and Texas Southern University (Houston).

HBCUs are an important part of the higher education landscape. These institutions have been around for generations, with some that predate the Civil War. St. Philip’s was founded by the Episcopal Church in 1898 to educate girls who were the daughters and granddaughters of emancipated African Americans.

The college ranked #46 on the national Top 50 Best Historically Black Colleges and Universities list. On the national list, SPC is the highest-listed two-year institution.

Many HBCUs have survived years of underfunding and segregation. Initially an Episcopal school, SPC went public during the Great Depression when diocesan funding diminished. Under the leadership of Saint Artemisia Bowden, who served at the institution’s helm for 52 years, the school persisted and grew into a community college. She was named a Holy Woman by the Episcopal Church posthumously in 2015 to recognize her work in education, the church and the community.

St. Philip’s is the only HBCU in San Antonio and the most western public HBCU in the U.S.

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Dark & Lovely and the College Gurl Foundation Announce New Scholarships for Black, Female College Students

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In Celebration of Dark and Lovely’s 50th Anniversary, 50 book scholarships will be awarded to young, Black women pursuing college degrees

 Dark & Lovely, as part of its Building Beautiful Futures initiative, in partnership with The College Gurl Foundation, has announced that applications are now available for the Building Beautiful Futures book scholarship program. Building Beautiful Futures is a multi-year commitment that will help bring educational and career equity to Black, female college students and young professionals via scholarships, mentorship and career coaching opportunities. Applications are open now through November 30. To apply, please click HERE.

The scholarships are open to Black women with the following qualifications:

  • Must be enrolled full-time in an undergraduate program at an accredited college or university in the U.S.
  • Must have a minimum GPA of 3.0 or above on a 4.0 scale.
  • Must be a U.S. resident or citizen.
  • Students who are academically ambitious, leaders, aspiring entrepreneurs, and community volunteers.

“The Dark & Lovely partnership is truly a dream come true! I am forever grateful for my journey of hard work and sacrifices as this opportunity is the definition of building a beautiful future,” stated Jessica L. Brown, President of The College Gurl Foundation. “Together, we are championing for education and sprinkling our black girl magic to close the opportunity gap for generations to come!”

Actress, producer and Dark & Lovely brand ambassador Storm Reid is an ambassador for the program and is helping to spread the word about this scholarship to young women who may be eligible. “College is difficult enough, and worrying about how to pay for it doesn’t make it any better. This scholarship is an opportunity to alleviate a part of that financial burden and help young, Black women work towards achieving their dreams.”

As Dark & Lovely celebrates 50 years of serving Black women and their beauty needs, they remain committed to closing the opportunity gap through scholarships, mentorship and career coaching opportunities to recent graduates and those pursuing four-year degrees. Closing the opportunity gap, which refers to the conditions and obstacles that people face which impact their opportunities in life, will create the path to success for Black women. To learn more on how to:

  • Apply For a Building Beautiful Futures Scholarship, Click HERE
    • This $10,000 scholarship is renewable over four years
  • Participate in our Mentorship Program
    • Follow DARK & LOVELY for our schedule of quarterly mentorship masterclasses focused on life and career coaching
  • Be The Change
    • Become a Mentor or Mentee and Inspire others by sharing your mentorship story using #DARKANDLOVELYBBF

About Dark & Lovely

Dark & Lovely, founded in 1972, was created to help Black women express and embrace their individual styles. As one of the first brands to celebrate the Black consumer, for 50 years Dark & Lovely has been known for offering innovative products and technology made exclusively for Black Women to address their specific beauty needs. As a subsidiary of L’Oréal USA, Dark & Lovely continues to unveil breakthrough hair innovations for women of color. For more information, visit www.darkandlovely.com.

About College Gurl Foundation

Since 2017, The College Gurl Foundation (CGF) has been educating students with a focus on minority students in the Washington Metropolitan area who come from economically disadvantaged households.

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