Nicholas Johnson ’20 and Grace Sommers ’20 were named valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively, for the Class of 2020 in a University statement released Monday afternoon. In the University’s 274-year history, Johnson is the first black valedictorian.
University faculty accepted the nominations of the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing at its April 27 meeting.
Johnson and Sommers are set to speak at the virtual commencement ceremony, to be held on May 31, 2020. An in-person ceremony will follow in May 2021.
Johnson, hailing from Montreal, is an operations research and financial engineering (ORFE) concentrator who is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learning, applied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing.
He will be spending the summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group, and in fall 2020 he will begin Ph.D. studies in operations research at MIT.
For Johnson, the soul of his time at the University was in the late night conversations with friends 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,” he said in the University’s statement.
When asked what advice he would offer his former self, Johnson wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian, “cherish the time you put aside to spend with your friends and protect it — those are the times that you will cherish the most after your time at Princeton comes to an end.”
Johnson’s senior thesis, titled “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” focuses on “developing high-performance 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,” according to the statement.
His thesis is supervised by Miklos Racz, an assistant professor in the ORFE department.
Johnson is also working on another ongoing research project, which seeks to develop a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion, under the supervision of Professor of Finance and Economics Yacine Ait-Sahalia.
Previously, Johnson worked with Prateek Mittal, associate professor of electrical engineering, on an independent research project titled “Generating Privacy Preserving Synthetic Datasets,” which was presented at the spring 2019 Electrical Engineering Symposium.
“I feel extremely honoured and grateful to all those who have supported my academic and personal development: family, friends, and mentors,” Johnson wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “Special thanks to Professor Massey, Professor Racz, Professor Sircar, Professor Gutarra, Dean Andres and Momo for their invaluable guidance.”
“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 in the University statement.
On campus, Johnson is a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, the editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy, a Whitman College RCA, and a member of the University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, of which he served as co-president in 2018.
Johnson believes branching out of your immediate field is an important part of truly immersing yourself in the education the University has to offer.
“Take advantage of the incredible research opportunities and guest seminars Princeton offers, even if they’re outside your academic discipline — you have a lot to learn and a lot to contribute,” he wrote to the ‘Prince,’ explaining another pearl of wisdom he would offer his former self.
Last summer, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters. Previously, he interned at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group, developing a novel optimization technique. His project was recognized with the Angela E. Grant Poster Award for Best Modeling at the 25th Conference of African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences held in June 2019.
Johnson is also 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 the co-recipient of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award.
Hailing from Bridgewater, N.J., Sommers is a physics concentrator with certificates in applications of computing, applied and computational mathematics, and Ancient Roman language and culture.
In the fall, Sommers will continue her education at the University as a Ph.D. student in physics.
In regard to her award, Sommers wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that “it’s definitely a delightful way to cap off my four years here, and an opportunity for me to reflect on the valuable, enriching experiences Princeton has provided.”
For Sommers, those enriching experiences were largely made possible by what she called the incredible approachability of her professors.
She said in the University statement that she has been fortunate enough to find research opportunities on campus for all three of her summers, which she found to be a rewarding part of her experience at the University.
Titled “Order and Disorder in a New Class of Spin Systems,” Sommers’ senior thesis, advised by physics professor Shivaji Sondhi, examined the statistical mechanics of a spin model with applications to dynamical phenomena such as jamming and glassy dynamics.
Throughout her time at the University, Sommers worked with Mariangela Lisanti, associate professor of physics, to analyze the kinematics of a Milky Way-type galactic simulation; conducted a theoretical study of the Tricritical Ising Model under Herman Verlinde, the chair of the physics department; and modeled the Raman spectrum of liquid water as a member of chemistry professor Roberto Car’s research group.
Sommers thanked her parents, as well as each of the professors who had advised her, in her email to the ‘Prince,’ noting that all had contributed invaluably to her education.
Notably, the salutatorian must communicate with graduating classmates at commencement in Latin.
Sommers began her study of Latin in seventh grade, and continued it at the University, taking at least one class each year, as well as a classics course in ancient medicine.
“Certainly, one of the best things about the classics department is the professors,” she said in the University statement, “and I’ve enjoyed having thought-provoking conversations with my professors and classmates about passages ranging from the bucolic to the grotesque.”
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to ... Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who himself was the Princeton salutatorian not too long ago,” she wrote to the ‘Prince.’
Previously, Sommers has been awarded the Freshman First Honor Prize, the George B. Wood Legacy Sophomore Prize, and was a co-recipient of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award, along with Johnson.
She also received the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, an annual award for “outstanding undergraduates interested in careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering.”
On campus, she is a member of Undergraduate Women in Physics and the Princeton Society of Physics Students. Although now a member of Butler College, she wanted to make clear that was not always the case.
“My origins — and my heart — lie in the one and only Wilson College,” she wrote, requesting to be identified as a “Proud Wilsonite.”
This article has been updated to reflect the history Johnson has made as the University’s first black valedictorian.