JP Nelson - SFIS Outstanding Undergraduate and Moeur Award Recipent

The race is on: Student athlete and Innovation in Society graduate looks forward to tackling new challenges


Eliza Robinson

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

JP Nelson is no stranger to going the distance — in academics and on the track field. As a National Merit Scholar, distance runner for ASU and recipient of a 2018 Mouer award recognizing his 4.0 GPA, Nelson kept busy throughout his four years at ASU.

Asked how he managed to balance his packed schedule, Nelson related, “The coach who recruited me said, ‘You know, there are three things you can do in college: You can do collegiate athletics, perform well in academics, and you can have a social life. But you only have time to do two of those things.’ Guess which two I chose?” he joked.

Nelson went to high school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but was convinced to come to ASU when sitting in on classes during a tour of the school. He started his college career pursuing a degree in physics, but he switched to the Innovation in Society major with the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) when he discovered the new undergraduate program. Unsurprisingly, he already has his sights set on his next challenge: getting his PhD.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I came to ASU in large part because of a graduate class on science, technology and public affairs, taught by Michael Crow and Dan Sarewitz, that I sat in on while I was touring as a senior in high school. I wasn’t really aware of science and technology studies as a field, but I was just amazed at the things I saw going on in there. I thought to myself, “Well, anywhere that something like this can go on — anywhere a class like this can happen, is a place that I would like to be.” At the time I planned to be a physics major because I wanted to work on nuclear fusion as an energy source, pursuant to combating climate change. But over my first two years here what I found was, while I was good at it, I wasn’t really having a lot of fun. I began to be concerned that it might not be a great idea to get a degree in something I don’t enjoy, and maybe if I kept doing something that I don’t enjoy, at some point I might stop being good at it as well.

So in my sophomore year, I took the class that in a large part had convinced me to come here. It was everything I would have hoped it would be and more. It was a ton of fun! I got to think about science and technology in ways that I never really had before. I heard about the new Innovation in Society major — which was to launch in the next fall semester — so once the major was created, I picked it up right away. I eventually ended up leaving physics to focus more on Innovation in Society. So I was already in the Innovation in Society major at that time, but I did have a discreet “aha” moment sitting in a physics class the following fall. I looked up and said to a friend sitting next to me, “You know Freddy, I think I’m done with physics” and I stood up and walked out. By the end of that day I had replaced my physics classes with science and technology ones, and I never really went back!

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I learned that I could accomplish good in the world while doing things that I actually liked to do! There are a lot of big problems in the world, and there are a lot of ways to work on them. It’s very liberating to feel that I can make a difference and hopefully accomplish good doing something that I really do enjoy.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was pretty heavily recruited by a lot of different universities because I was a National Merit Finalist. But in January of my senior year, Barrett, the Honors College here at ASU sent me a letter saying they would pay for a plane ticket for me to come down and look at the college. I looked around and thought to myself, “It’s -10°F outside, I think I’ll take them up on the offer!”

I sat in on a lot of classes, and I also spoke with the cross-country coach at the time, Louie Quintana. I had run competitively in high school (and all four years here now), but at the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue. But Louie said “Hey, we’ve got a spot on the team for you!” So between that and the class taught by President Crow and Dr. Sarewitz that I mentioned earlier — those two factors are what drew me here.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Really pursue what you’re interested in. If you hear about someone doing something cool, go meet them, go get involved with it. The worst thing that will happen is you’ll find it’s not for you, and you’ll move on. And the best thing that’ll happen is you could meet someone you could do your honors thesis with, or someone who might be able to get you into grad school, or you could just make some new friends. And it’s not just good for your career, it’s good for you as a person. Do it because it will make you happy!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My haunts have sort of migrated around campus during my time here. It’s honestly just really nice to hang out in SFIS’ grad student area (in the Interdisciplinary B building) because the grad students are really interesting people. It might not be the best for actually getting work done, because I like to talk to them, but it’s fun to be around here. Obviously I also spend a lot of time at the track, and ASU just built a new student athlete study center, which is a nice venue.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be entering the Human and Social Dimensions PhD program here at SFIS. As part of that, I’ll be taking on a research assistant position with Mahmud Farooque’s project on public engagement around the governance of geoengineering research. After getting my PhD, I could see myself in academia, especially at a university doing research, I would be happy doing that. But I would also enjoy doing think-tank or policy advisory work as well.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I think that right now I would focus on hardening the electoral system against foreign intrusion, studying the propagation of information and misinformation online through new media and trying to figure out ways to address that.