James Agolia '16 and Andrew Nelson '16 were named the recipients of the 2016 Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize on Wednesday afternoon.
The Pyne Prize is the University's highest general distinction and is awarded to undergraduates who display excellent scholarship, strength of character, and effective leadership.
According to apress release, Agolia and Nelson will be recognized at a luncheon during Alumni Day on Feb. 20.
Agolia, a chemistry major, plans on attending medical school with the intent on becoming a surgeon and a scientist in academic medicine, according to the press release. His former honors include the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence in 2013 and 2014, the Peter N. Curtin Award for Excellence in Chemistry Research and Intercollegiate Rowing Association all-academic recognition.
Agolia was unavailable to comment.
Michael Hecht '74, the Head of Forbes College, has worked with Agolia for three years in a chemistry research lab on research in synthetic biology and creating novel proteins that function and provide life-sustaining activity like natural proteins do.
“What’s kind of remarkable about [Agolia] is that he’s got a lot of grit… the project got harder and harder and he didn’t get discouraged,” Hecht said.
He added that Agolia had an enthusiastic approach to work, both inside and outside of the lab.
“James is really smart. He’s a really hardworking, motivated, dedicated person with his work,” he said.
Hecht said that Agolia was dedicated to various activities such as being an RCA in Wilson College, rowing on the lightweight crew team and being in an a capella group.
“Clearly, this guy has more than 24 hours in the day… he does a great number of things in many different realms and seems to do all of them at a really high level. He’s spectacular to watch,” he added.
Nelson is majoring in German with certificates in European cultural studies, values and public life and French language and culture. He has won multiple academic honors, including the Arthur Liman Fellowship in Public Interest Law, the Guggenheim Internship in Criminal Justice and the Department of German’s book prize. Nelson is also a member of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows as well as Phi Beta Kappa.
Nelson said that the Prize was completely unexpected. He added that he did not know he was a contender for the Prize.
“To think that all of these people that I have felt so fortunate to be able to work with, and who really have made my Princeton career, had things to say about me, has really made me think about and value the work that I’ve done here… that’s definitely been the most meaningful part for me,” he said.
Nelson is a residential college adviser in Forbes College, works at the Writing Center and also works as a learning consultant and member of the student advisory council at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. He said that he enjoys spending one-on-one time with students in order to help them succeed in academic areas that may be challenging.
Nelson said that within the next few years, he hopes to work in issues that have been particularly important to him during his time at the University, including educational and community development. He also wants to work in the criminal justice system, particularly as it applies to youth.
Hecht said that he also knows Nelson through their connection to Forbes.
“Both of them [Nelson and Agolia] are, in many ways, multidimensional people,” Hecht said.
Hecht said that one attribute both winners share is not drawing attention to themselves. He added that Agolia and Nelson's humble, straightforward and down-to-earth natures make them fitting for the prize.
“They’re both the kind of people who are interested in other people, taking care of other people and being mentors,” he added.
Barbara Nagel, an assistant professor of German and Nelson’s thesis advisor, noted the importance of the Pyne Prize and said that Nelson is a perfect recipient.
“People at Princeton know that the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize ‘is awarded to the senior who has most clearly manifested excellent scholarship, strength of character and effective leadership,’” she said.
She added that Nelson has excelled in all areas, under her definitions of “excellence,” “character” and “leadership.”
Nagel is advising Nelson on his senior thesis about Swiss writer Robert Walser, and she notes that the small size of the German Department helps students get one-on-one support and advising. She said that students cannot overestimate the degree to which the community of majors teach and learn from each other.
“To me, the way that Andrew approaches his work in general and his Senior Thesis in specific exemplifies the best of what we encourage in our students: Andrew always makes a real effort to come up with genuine research questions,” she said.
Nagel said she hasn't encountered a single written or spoken comment from Nelson that didn't seem to be motivated by a “real,” original interest. She added that because Nelson is concentrating in a foreign language department, his approach to the thesis and its general quality is enhanced.
“Andrew’s approach to language is never merely instrumental, but instead shows a high degree of attentiveness and care; this kind of thoughtfulness toward language is worthy of emulation – in the academic context but just as much, or even more so, in everyday life,” she said.
“The first time Andrew really came to my attention was when we were discussing one of the most famous novels of GDR [East German] literature, Christa Wolf’s They Divided the Sky (1963),” Nagel said.
The fact that the female protagonist, who aspires to be a schoolteacher, chooses to work in a factory during the summer had understandably surprised the students, she added. She asked them what they imagined would make such a work experience worthwhile – or not.
Nagel said that most of her students did not see the value in working in a factory. However, Nelson wrote his paper on Simone Weil, a French political activist, philosopher and mystic, who experienced the life of a factory worker for a year in order to truly analyze their roles.
She noted that Nelson’s participation in the German Program’s Summer Work Program also made him stand out as a leader.
“We offered Andrew the opportunity to work for a bigger cultural institution, a new-media company, or the Museum of Youth in Berlin," she said.
Nelson chose the Museum of Youth in order to work with younger people, Nagel added. This was a form of leadership — to empathize with the seemingly powerless, whether it is factory workers or young people, or the “small,” Nagel said.
When asked for advice to students hoping to win the Pyne Prize in the future, Nelson noted the importance of hard work and valuing the University’s faculty, students and general resources.
“I would just say to really value the people that you find here and the work that you do with them,” he said.