Nicholas Johnson becomes first-ever black valedictorian in Princeton’s 274-year history

Mohammed Awal May 11, 2020
Nicholas Johnson Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development

Nicholas Johnson has just etched his name in the history chapters of education in the United States, becoming Princeton University’s first black valedictorian. An operation research and financial engineering contractor from Montreal, Johnson was named valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2020.

After the virtual graduation which is slated for Sunday, May 31, 2020, Johnson will spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group before heading to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his Ph.D. studies in operations research.

“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 in a press release.

A former intern at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group, where he helped in developing and implementing a novel optimization technique under the supervision of Aleksandr Sahakyan, principal investigator and group head, he is also pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learningapplied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing.

A charmingly bright fellow, Johnson’s 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, the release states.

Again during his junior years, he embarked on an independent research project, “Generating Privacy Preserving Synthetic Datasets,” in which he developed a machine learning system to more robustly anonymize datasets than existing alternatives, which he presented at the spring 2019 Electrical Engineering Symposium and the 2019 Center for Statistics and Machine Learning Symposium.

Born to achieve greatness, Johnson also has another ongoing research project in which he is developing a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion.

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.

Johnson has further interned at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms and 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.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: May 11, 2020


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