Taishi Nakase, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator from Melbourne, Australia, has been selected as valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2021. He is the second consecutive ORFE major to be named valedictorian.
Lucy Wang, a chemistry concentrator from Marietta, Georgia, was named salutatorian. The Princeton faculty accepted the nominations of the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing at its April 26 meeting.
Commencement for the Class of 2021 will take place at Princeton Stadium on Sunday, May 16. Nakase and Wang are expected to give remarks at the ceremony.
The honor for Nakase comes a year after another ORFE student, Nicholas Johnson, was named valedictorian for the Class of 2020.
Nakase plans to become a doctor and is interested in using mathematical modeling to confront global health challenges. After Princeton, he will pursue a master of science in modeling for global health at Oxford University before attending medical school.
“I was drawn to the program at Oxford because of its focus on mathematical modeling as a way of confronting challenges in global health,” Nakase said. “My research focus will be on the modeling of infectious diseases, particularly measles, in developing countries.”
Nakase is the first in his family to attend college. He credited the mentorship of Princeton faculty and research experiences through the Global Health Program with supporting his studies and inspiring his career path.
“Professor Bryan Grenfell introduced me to the world of infectious diseases and encouraged me as a first-generation college student to pursue my interests in the field,” Nakase said. Grenfell is the Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs. “He has also tirelessly supported me in my independent work in infectious diseases by providing valuable insights and finding the time to help me think through the problems.”
Nakase’s senior thesis examines the modern challenges of measles control in Vietnam, modeling vaccination campaigns under limited health care resources in the country. Through Princeton’s Global Health Program, he interned with Dr. Marc Choisy at the Oxford University Research Clinic in Hanoi. Nakase continues to work with Choisy remotely on research modeling measles dynamics in Vietnam.
“My global health internship was a transformative experience,” he said. “It inspired a passion for the modeling of infectious diseases and encouraged me to pursue questions in global health.”
The course “Mathematical Modeling in Biology and Medicine,” taught by Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Corina Tarnita, also had a profound influence.
“This class fostered a deep appreciation for mathematical modeling, particularly for its capacity to add structure and rules to systems whose governing forces remain largely hidden from view,” Nakase said. “It remains the principal lens through which I attempt to understand the spread and control of infectious diseases because it offers ways of constructing great complexity from seemingly simple structures. In this way, this class united my interests in modeling and medicine and thus inspired me to adopt a mathematical modeling approach to my future work in academic medicine.”
Nakase said Bill Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, was also a valuable mentor and teacher. “Professor Massey was incredibly approachable and always delighted to spend time discussing his material with me,” he said.
Before heading to Oxford in the fall, Nakase will spend this summer studying questions pertaining to the persistence of measles in the developed world with Grenfell and Jessica Metcalf, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs. In previous summers, he has been a trauma surgery research intern at the Wake Forest School of Medicine and a summer analyst at Rogers Investment Advisors in Tokyo.
While at Princeton, Nakase received the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award and was twice awarded the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society and the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society.
In addition to his ORFE concentration, Nakase is pursuing a certificate in applications of computing. He is member of Mathey College, as well as a teaching assistant for courses in ORFE, computer science and chemistry, and a mentor to incoming engineering students.
In recollecting his undergraduate experience, Nakase said the COVID-19 pandemic has put into perspective how special a place Princeton is.
“Last spring, amidst devastating loss and the upheaval of our studies and life, I came to reflect on how important the conversations with friends, whether in dining halls or in in-person discussions, were to our college life,” he said. “Hence, I am very grateful for the work of the University to bring us all together once again for this year’s Commencement on campus. To celebrate the joys and triumphs of our time at Princeton, especially our perseverance through the disruptions of this past year, with our classmates is truly special and a privilege for all of us who called Princeton home for the last four years.”
To read about Wang, please see this story.