“How do we reimagine the human sciences with human flourishing at the center?” asks Alondra Nelson in her essay, “Society After the Pandemic,” penned for the Social Science Research Council in April 2020. But Nelson’s pursuit of human flourishing began long before COVID-19 uprooted the world and she was named as the White House’s top adviser on social science. Whether through her research on genetic testing or her various leadership roles, Nelson has pursued the betterment of society and its inhabitants.
Raised in Southern California, Nelson attended University of California, San Diego, where she received a B.S. in Anthropology, then crossed the country and earned a PhD in American Studies at New York University. She went on to be an assistant and associate professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Yale, the first African American woman to join the Sociology Department faculty in its 128-year history.
In 2009, she returned to New York, becoming the first African American to be tenured in Columbia’s Sociology Department. While at Columbia, she directed the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality; founded and co-directed the Columbia University Women’s Gender and Sexuality Council; and became the first dean of social science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She helped establish several initiatives, including the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity Program, which seeks to understand causes of and solutions for anti-Black racism, and the Eric J. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights, a program that fosters scholarly inquiry, policy debate, and public engagement around topics of justice.
“Although as a child I felt trapped in the sciences as a career trajectory,” Nelson said in an early 2020 interview with The Believer, “there was a part of me that had a deep appreciation for what science can accomplish in the world at its best, and later in life, at its worst.” By then, she had been the Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, home to Albert Einstein and other prominent scientists, for over one year, and the president of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the pre-eminent American nonprofit fostering innovative research in social science, for just over two. And under her guidance, the SSRC launched projects such as the Social Data Initiative, which analyzes the impact of social media on society; the #CoronavirusSyllabus, a list of sources curated by Nelson herself; and the Reimagining Social Institutions series with SAGE Publishing, which aims to build an anti-racist future.
Nelson herself has researched subjects ranging from genetic research to the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Regardless of subject, she asks questions such as “Why is this…rising in this moment?” Take consumer-oriented genetic testing: In a 2020 interview on the Social Science Bites podcast, Nelson spoke about her research on the rise and use of genetic testing, which she sees as “root-seeking” for the descendants of enslaved Black Americans, who “lost their given names, lost the languages of their foremothers and forefathers.” So as genetic testing became publicized, “African Americans were early adopters in this space… [out of a] genealogical aspiration that many African Americans are trying to fulfill – a profound and pronounced and often very living and present longing sense of loss and longing about identity, original family names, of points and places on the continent of Africa where one’s ancestors might have come from.”
Nelson’s published works include Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, an award-winning book on the indispensable but lesser-known aspect of the organization. She also was the editor and curator of Afrofuturism, a special issue of Social Text that addresses the intersection between African diasporic culture and technology through literature, poetry, science fiction and speculative fiction, music, visual art, and the Internet and maintains that racial identity fundamentally influences technocultural practices.
Most recently, President Joe Biden named Nelson to newly created position at OSTP, deputy director for science and society. Nelson, who is now essentially the national adviser for social and behavioral sciences, was hailed as an “inspiring choice” across the academic world, which has in turn honored her often. Accolades include the Poorvu Prize for interdisciplinary teaching excellence and being named a 2019 American Academy of Political and Social Science fellow. She has served on a number of boards for academic of social organization, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Data & Society, the Russell Sage Foundation, The Teagle Foundation, and the Brotherhood/Sister Sol.
Returning to the question that opened this profile, “How do we reimagine the human sciences with human flourishing at the center?” As Nelson said in the public unveiling of her new post, “As a Black woman researcher, I am keenly aware of those who are missing from rooms. I believe we have a responsibility to work together to make sure that our science and technology reflect us and when it does it truly reflects all of us, that it reflects who we truly are together.”