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 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.
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
Remembering Mr. Clark
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.
He’s still number one in the hearts of many, but he’s definitely #1 in the books, literally! Former President Barack Obama’s new memoir titled A Promised Land set the record for the largest first day sales total for any book ever published by Penguin Random House. The memoir that reflects on his presidency and provides honest accounts of his campaign and time in office, etc. was released on November 17th and already sold over 1,710,443 units. A Promised Land is said to be the first volume of a two book series but a date for the second book release date has not been made public.
West Point student from San Antonio lands prestigious U.S. Rhodes Scholarship
West Point Military Academy cadet Tyrese Bender of San Antonio is one of just 32 students nationwide to be presented with a prestigious U.S. Rhodes Scholarship.
Rhodes Scholars are awarded financial assistance to complete graduate or master’s degree work at Oxford University in Oxford, England. The scholarships are based on students’ scholarly achievements.
Bender, an engineering management major, is a deputy brigade commander, a two-year track team captain and a contributor to the West Point’s inaugural U.S. Corps of Cadets Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategy.
The Corps of Cadets Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategy is an on-campus organization that promotes recruitment, admission and retention of cadets, staff and faculty from diverse backgrounds. The group also strives for an inclusive on-campus environment that supports their development and retention.
“[Cadet Bender has] found creative and bold ways to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion through leadership and studies at West Point,” Brigadier General Cindy Jebb, West Point’s dean of the Academic Board, said in a release.
Bender will graduate from West Point in 2021, after which he will pursue graduate studies at Oxford. While there, he intends to earn a Master of Philosophy in Sociology and Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation.