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Li and Beidel ’24 win Pyne Prize, highest undergrad distinction

Two side-by-side headshots of students in suits and ties
Li and Beidel were awarded the Pyne Prize on Feb. 24.
Courtesy of Brian Li and Casey Beidel

Brian Li ’24 and Casey Beidel ’24 were both awarded the 2024 Pyne Prize last week. The award, presented at Alumni Day on Saturday, Feb. 24, is the highest general distinction given to undergraduates.

The Pyne Prize is given annually to students that have “most clearly manifested excellent scholarship, strength of character, and effective leadership.” It was first awarded in 1922 and its namesake, Moses Taylor Pyne Class of 1877, was an influential University trustee whose tenure saw the construction of Blair Hall and the Graduate College.


Previous recipients of the award include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and former Princeton President Robert F. Goheen ’40.

There have been a few notable trends among Pyne Prize recipients over the past twelve years. Li is the sixth Pyne Prize winner to have served on Undergraduate Student Government (USG) in the last six years. Last year, Austin Davis ’23 received the award after serving as USG Academics chair and, two years ago, both recipients had been USG members.

Li was chief elections manager for USG when the Princeton Committee on Palestine put forth the contentious Caterpillar referendum for a student vote, sparking controversy across campus. Li faced personal attacks and harassment as outside organizations became involved in the debate.

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Li referred to that debate as a defining moment in his Princeton experience, saying, “there was a lot of backlash against what me and my colleagues were doing, but to have the support of the University and trying to navigate all that in an empathetic way was a very unpleasant experience at the moment, but it was also deeply educational.”

Beidel received the prestigious Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence twice, while Li received it once. Receiving the Shapiro Prize is slightly associated with receiving the Pyne Prize — a majority of Pyne Prize winners since 2014 have been recipients of the Shapiro Prize, while just over a quarter have won two.


Outside of USG, other affiliations represented in recent Pyne Prize winners have been Peer Academic Advisors (PAA), Orange Key tour guides, Phi Beta Kappa, and Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI) Scholars. This year's winners continue these trends. Both were inducted into Phi Beta Kappa this fall, and Beidel is a PAA and an Orange Key tour guide.

Both of this year’s winners are members of the Cap & Gown Club. Although Cap & Gown has produced three Pyne Prize winners in the past two years, Tower Club has been dominant this decade, with seven winners in the past eight years.

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In the realm of academics, the Pyne Prize has disproportionately been awarded to history majors and students in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in the past ten years. This year’s winners continue the trend of social science and humanities awardees, although they majored in departments that have produced fewer Pyne Prize winners recently: Li is a comparative literature major, while Beidel studies sociology.

Beidel has served as president of Princeton’s oldest a cappella group, the Nassoons, through which he said he has “buil[t] friendships that have lasted through college and will last a lifetime.” In addition to singing, he also acts in Princeton’s Triangle Club. His interest in the arts is not only a hobby, but also a professional interest: in 2021, he interned at the New York Foundation for the Arts. 

In his coursework, Beidel has focused on studying and advocating for LGBTQ+ legal rights.  

“I am queer myself and a lot of people in my family are queer,” he told the ‘Prince.’ “There’s obviously [been] an uptick recently in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policies that target LGBTQ+ people — we’re seeing legislation introduced to an unprecedented extent rather. It’s really imperative that we have people that are fighting for the LGBTQ+ community from a policy and legal perspective as well as doing whatever they can through community service and nonprofit work.”

Beidel’s senior thesis is titled “Don’t Say Gay: A Study of Gender, Sexuality and Freedoms in the Classroom.” In the work, he examines how K-12 educators in New Jersey and Pennsylvania respond to policies that attempt to limit discussion of gender and sexuality, surveying how the policies affect classroom curricula as well as teachers’ interpersonal relationships with students, according to the University’s press release.

Despite his success, Beidel said he still sometimes experiences imposter syndrome at Princeton, though he urges fellow students to fight against it. 

“There are plenty of programs that I was maybe nervous about applying for because I thought I wouldn’t get them that I probably should have at least taken a shot at, and I was maybe intimidated by certain courses or departments when I feel like I probably could have done fine,” he said.

“I still have trouble shaking the [imposter syndrome]. Even in class today, people were talking about economic concepts that I had no idea about, and I felt completely out of the loop.”

Asked about his advice to new and future students, he said, “try new things rather than [letting them] intimidate you.”

In contrast to his social science counterpart, Li is majoring in comparative literature while pursuing a certificate in global health and health policy. His interests lie at the intersection of literature, science, and the history of medicine. After graduation, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in the history of science and medicine and later enter a combined M.D./Ph.D. program.

Marina Brownlee, the Robert Schirmer Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Comparative Literature, said Li excels as a scholar in the field of medical humanities. She said that she quickly recognized “how special his intellect, analytical skills, and drive are.” 

Li is one of two chairs of the Peer Representatives, a group that provides peer representation to students being investigated by the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline. He is also vice president of Princeton’s curling team, which earned a silver medal in the national college championship in 2023.

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Li said he was “lost for words” upon learning he had received the Pyne Prize and “was stumbling over [his] words when talking to Dean [Jill] Dolan about it.” He said the honor “came as a tremendous surprise.”

“I’m the son of new Americans who came to this country just under 40 years ago to further their education,” Li said in the University press release, noting his family’s roots in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tianjin. “I am ever grateful to the many wonderful teachers that I’ve had over the years who have helped me define and refine my path to and through Princeton.”

Li said that he took his first course in the history of science — the topic that would later become his academic focus — simply to fulfill the Historical Analysis distribution requirement. Based on that experience, he advises that current and future students try as many new things as possible while at Princeton.

“There’s so much here,” he said. “It’s like drinking from a firehose, you can’t possibly take it all in, but take as much as you can and let yourself be persuaded to try new things.”

Julian Hartman-Sigall is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’ 

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