‘There’s something quite extraordinary in all these things that we’ve experienced’

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Taishi Nakase, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator who hails from Melbourne, Australia, was named Princeton’s valedictorian for the Class of 2021. He spoke with PAW about his research into measles vaccinations campaigns, his plans for medical school, and the challenges and lessons of being a Princeton student in this pandemic year.



Carlett Spike: Hello. I’m Carlett Spike, writer and assistant editor for Princeton Alumni Weekly, and welcome back to the PAWcast. This is the Commencement edition. Today our guest is Taishi Nakase, the valedictorian for the Class of 2021. The first in his family to attend college, Nakase is an operations research and financial engineering concentrator from Melbourne, Australia. He is also pursuing a certificate in applications of computing. His senior thesis examines the modern challenges of measles control in Vietnam, modeling vaccination campaigns under limited health-care resources in the country. This summer, he will be studying questions pertaining to the persistence of measles in the developed world. Next academic year, he is off to Oxford University to pursue a master of science in modeling for global health. In the future, he plans to attend medical school and become a doctor. I’m speaking with Taishi today, just a few days before Commencement. Welcome. Thank you for joining me.

Taishi Nakase: Thank you so much for having me.

CS: So big congratulations! Tell us, what was your reaction when you first learned you were the Valedictorian for the class?

TN: I mean I was quite overwhelmed because I was very much not expecting it. I think as any student that really gets this honor every year, it just sort of comes out of the blue. And it’s an overwhelming experience, but really humbling, and really –– to be really recognized for all the work that I’ve done by the faculty and also by other students is incredibly –– just an amazing sort of honor and experience.

CS: Absolutely. I’m also curious, since you were the first in your family to attend college, what was their reaction to the news?

TN: (laughs) I don’t think my parents really believed the news at first. They sort of wanted clarifying information as to what exactly I meant by valedictorian, or of the sort. But I mean they were incredibly proud. They really dreamed with me when I was sort of going through high school and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. And they really wanted that for me, and they spied it for themselves, but I mean circumstances prevented them from doing so. So they were incredibly proud, and honestly, I was very proud of them as well for what they’ve done for me.

CS: I’m sure it was a really gratifying moment for the whole family. So we’re recording this on May 13th, just a few days before Commencement on May 16th. How is the speech coming along? Can you share some themes you’re hoping to focus on?

TN: It’s been a scramble, and I’m currently in the midst of some of my drafts. But really, I want to sort of memorialize and honor this sort of unique moment I think a lot of students have found themselves in. I mean we’ve been through a global pandemic that’s really shifted what it meant to go to school and who we were around for an entire year, and it’s really been tough. And I think for a lot of students, it may feel like some of these things are very ordinary disappointments, not being able to see your friends and having to do classes online and sort of dealing with the annoying things of Zoom.

But I think there’s something quite extraordinary in all these things that we’ve experienced. And it really calls for, I think, sympathy and sort of acknowledgement on all our part of really sort of the individual experiences that we had, and the ordinary acts that we did to sort of get each other through it, and get through some of the loneliness together. And that’s sort of what I really want to go at. I know there’s all these grand things that we have to do, and I think the pandemic has showed us that as well. But at the same time, there are so many smaller things that have really meant so much to us as we’ve been through the year. And these small, ordinary acts among people that we don’t even really know sometimes, I think, have been so important for me. And that’s really what I want to commemorate in my speech, and hopefully I can get that across and sort of share with everyone this sort of moment in our lives.

CS: Absolutely, it’s been so unique. (laughter) I am curious, you know –– one thing that we didn’t know going into this was whether Commencement would be in person or not, and obviously now it is, with respect to CDC and state guidelines for COVID-19. How are you feeling about that? And also, who are you bringing as your guest?

TN: I mean it was a huge surprise. I mean my background and my research experience is in infectious diseases, so I was constantly thinking about, what are the risks of transmission in these sort of circumstances, is it even responsible to do so, how much I really wanted it. But I mean, I know it hasn’t been perfect. But I think in this respect, it was both sort of a calculated and wise decision, and a somewhat courageous decision on the part of the administration and the staff. And I think really having this time, however brief it may be, to really come together one final time –– and not over Zoom, even though we’re quite versed in the nuances at this point, is incredibly –– it’s just nice, and it’s a tremendous thing that we can do. 

As to who I’m inviting, unfortunately, my parents –– given that they’re back home in Melbourne, where basically there’s no flights, and it’s sort of shut down, they can’t really come over, but they will be watching it live and I guess cheering me on as I nervously get through the speech. (laughs)

CS: You will, and your speech is going to be great. (laughter) Switching gears a little bit to your time at the university, if you can think back to right before you started, what initially interested you in coming to Princeton?

TN: I think the university system in Australia is very different in that when you finish high school, you very much sort of pick a professional track a lot of the time. And when I left high school, I sort of went into medical school and even started medical school back in Australia. But in some sense, I didn’t feel ready to sort of jump into a career without really having explored all these other options, and sort of, I guess, so many other fields that I didn’t know at the time. I hardly even heard of computer science, let alone operations research, when I was sort of starting off medical school. So this opportunity to really explore different interests and have a faculty there that is really there to encourage you in whatever you hope to pursue was what really drew me to Princeton. And I mean it really did live up to it, I mean I tried a lot of things I didn’t expect, and I’m forever grateful for that. And it really shifted my direction –– I mean I’m back to medical school now, but I’m a very different person with very new things under my belt.

CS: So I think, you know, for your class, and also the Class of 2020, your college career is kind of going to be thought of as pre-COVID and during COVID. So I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about what your experience looked like on campus before COVID hit.

TN: I mean it was busy, I mean there was a lot of things going on. And I think it sort of slowed down a bit, for me at least, once we went online. But I think the most –– the biggest thing, and the thing I most sort of enjoyed before COVID hit was those chances –– it was really small interactions, really, that I had with my classmates. I would bump into someone at the dining hall, and then we would sit down there for two hours just talking about whatever, really. Or bumping into a professor, and then I happen to be doing some research they’re interested in, or I happen to read something they’ve been working on, and you just fall into a conversation for a couple of hours. And those chance moments, you can try and recreate them, but it’s really not possible, to some extent. And that’s what I found so special about Princeton, and people always willing to do that, and always open to that idea of really just this spontaneity and these moments of sort of sharing what you learned and what you hope to learn. And I mean that was my favorite part of life at Princeton before, and hopefully it comes back. I really hope that all students get that opportunity, because I mean that really made my time special here.

CS: Yeah, definitely. I’m sure you have a lot to say, but if you could kind of reflect on, what parts of your experience were really impacted by the pandemic, since it affected your junior and senior years?

TN: Well, the pandemic –– first of all, I had to basically leave the U.S., so I was sort of –– I returned home to Australia and really, it felt, the distance was very palpable for me. Having everyone so far away, and the life that I’d started to build and really love here was ten thousand miles away, and it was a 14-hour time difference. So I couldn’t see anyone live, really, unless I was up at 3 a.m. Or something of that sort. So that was a big struggle for me, the distance and sort of feeling a bit alone in that distance was very difficult. 

And I mean I think there are too many things to count. Worrying about how my friends were doing over in the U.S. as the situation really worsened over here, and seeing what was happening, and really not being able to do much was a very big struggle. And I think this was –– I think I’m speaking to the experience of a lot of international students, but the various issues with the [Trump] administration shutting down, or sort of threatening to stop international students from coming back. I mean it lasted a week, but that was a week I was up in the air, and it was overwhelming to think that parts of my life were being cut off for really nothing that I’d done. So it was a lot, and I can’t really say something in particular was really defining in that period. But I think I speak to a lot of the students’ experiences when I say that there were so many struggles there, and having come this far, I think it’s amazing on all our parts.

CS: Definitely, to see it through to the end is definitely an accomplishment in this time period. Something else I want to ask you about it is, I know you were involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. Can you talk about some of the activities you participated in and what drew you to those experiences?

TN: I think my time at Princeton, I was very much involved in sort of the undergraduate teaching aspect. I very much –– there were a lot of classes I enjoyed, and having the opportunity to really come back and help some of the students who were trying to learn the course, and who really loved the course like I did, I mean those are very sort of rewarding experiences through my time at Princeton and something that I took a lot of pride in, sort of spending time working through problems, or just really chatting about the courses. I think half the work at Princeton is getting over the hump of sort of comparing yourself with everyone else in the course, and sort of realizing that you do have the skills to do it. It takes a bit of work. So being that person for some of my other fellow students was incredibly rewarding and something I really want to take forward as I sort of move along.

CS: So as you’re kind of wrapping up your Princeton journey here, if you could go back, what advice would you give to your freshman self? Is there anything you’d do differently?

TN: I think I would say spend a bit more time with those friends and the faculty that sort of I came to know over the years. I think it comes as no surprise, I did spend a lot of time at Princeton alone in libraries and working by myself. And partly that did help me, given that I was so focused on these things, but I feel like I missed out on a lot of opportunities that I would’ve like to have enjoyed. Very simple things, just going to get bogo with some friends that I just didn’t do very often, or at all. So if I could go back and even tell the freshmen students now, I mean you can concentrate, and you can love your work, but take five minutes every now and then to sort of just relax and see some friends and just not take yourself too seriously.

CS: So I know you mentioned your thesis work, it’s a very timely topic. Can you talk about it and what inspired you to focus on vaccines?

TN: It was quite unexpected, how I even got involved in infectious disease work. I was heading into, I guess, junior summer, and I was thinking about what I wanted to do. And I was keenly aware that as an operations research student, that I should be doing some mathematical modeling or something of that sort. But at the same time, I very much enjoyed those public health sort of clinical medicine questions. So I sort of stumbled upon a program that as being given by the Global Health Program here at Princeton. And I happened to meet sort of a wonderful researcher there, Dr. Marc Choisy. And he sort of introduced me to this world of measles and explained the nuances. And I really fell in love with the whole idea of trying to distill these complexities of infectious diseases into sort of these mathematical structures whereby I could actually come up with policy recommendations that would really impact people on a large scale. And this was a fascinating topic to me, and I guess very timely. It wasn’t –– I didn’t think infectious diseases was as sexy as it was, as it is now, I guess about 18 months ago when I really got heavily involved in this. But I think it’s very timely now, and I think it’s becoming increasingly more important as we go forward because, I mean, this isn’t going to be the last pandemic we’re going to have, unfortunately. In some shape or form, it’s going to come back, as it always does, so I really like the opportunity to be part of that community that are going into the next one as well and be a bit more ready.

CS: Yeah, it sounds like such fascinating work. If you think about your kind of Princeton experience as a whole, what would you say was, or has been some of the most challenging parts?

TN: I think it would be finding the time for everything. Princeton offers so many opportunities for its students. Obviously, you’ve got the academic aspects of it, but there’s so many social aspects. And even things that are sort of unofficially offered by Princeton, just by having all these students here together on campus –– which is something quite foreign to me, coming from Australia where we don’t really have this. So dealing with all those options and trying to prioritize what I wanted out of my Princeton time was difficult. I mean you’re always going to have regrets of things you didn’t do, or things you could’ve done better, or things I could’ve focused on. But I mean it’s difficult to try and rationalize it now after the fact, but I think this is a struggle that a lot of students go through trying to find out what really is important to them at their four years.

CS: Definitely. So looking ahead, you solidified plans for the summer and the next academic year. Can you share a little bit more about what you’ll be working on and researching?

TN: So over the summer, I’ll be working with Professor [Bryan] Grenfell and Professor [Jessica] Metcalf at the university, looking actually more so at obviously COVID modeling. It’s not going away quite yet, but COVID modeling and also the interaction of this new disease with, for example, measles. I think it’s not readily apparent yet, but what impact COVID-19 has had on our efforts to eliminate, for example, measles from the developing world. And that’s still slowly becoming apparent, but it seems like it’s really set us back a bit, not only in the vaccination effort, but also in sort of the interacting aspects of, I guess, what health outcomes this really means –– what sort of health –– these interaction diseases, what impact that has on health outcomes, and also what that means for the logistical aspect of getting vaccine doses to isolated populations. So that whole question about what COVID does mean in terms of existing viruses is going to be, I think, the research focus for my summer. At Oxford, I think I’m –– I love measles, so I’m not going to run away from that quite yet. But hopefully I can get an opportunity for tackling some of the exciting infectious diseases of my time there.

CS: It seems like you’re involved in so many activities and have so many interests. I know you said you ultimately want to become a doctor. So what is your dream area of focus there?

TN: I’m not quite sure. Medicine for me is attractive and sort of very rewarding in that it sort of combines many aspects of sort of getting to work with sort of your community in sort of a hands-on approach. You also get to challenge –– sort of work against these challenges that are continually evolving. Medicine as a field is nowhere near where it could be. It’s advancing fast, but there’s still so many things we don’t know, and that’s very exciting for me. At Princeton, that’s really one of the things that kept inspiring me to work hard and learn more, was to try and sort of slowly and steadily sort of unlock some of these things that we didn’t know before. As to what field of medicine, I’m not sure; I want to keep my options open. Infectious diseases, I really love that at the moment, so maybe something with that, but I don’t know, we’ll see.

CS: Yeah, keep exploring your options.

TN: Right.

CS: So I asked you earlier what advice you would give your younger self, but I’m curious if there’s any additional advice or other things you would offer for the incoming class of freshman students.

TN: I would also say –– and this is what I learned over time –– is don’t be afraid of approaching your professors and really out-of-the-blue cold-emailing them –– I think that’s what it’s called –– or just having a chat with them. Because most of them, they want to help you, and they’re excited to hear that you’re also interested in their work. And I didn’t know that coming in, I mean I would have loved to have known someone who told me that at the start. But I was scared. These are some of the biggest names in the field, and they don’t want to hear from a 17- or 18-year-old just talking about their first intro class. But they really do, and they have opportunities for everyone, and they’re really open to it. It just makes your whole time at Princeton a lot more rewarding. So hopefully, if any sort of first years hear this, they take up that opportunity, even if it is a little daunting.

CS: These are all of my questions. Is there anything else you want to add or touch on, either reflecting on your experience, your prep for your speech?

TN: I mean I just really want to acknowledge how difficult the year has been –– year-and-a-half, really, it’s been for all of us. I know all of us made it here, but some of us –– I mean some of the group didn’t for various reasons, and I mean, and that shows how tough it’s been. I mean Princeton students are tough people, not much gets them back, but this has really challenged us. And I hope to see everyone at some point in time finishing their four years or their time at Princeton. And how, I guess, how proud I am of everyone, of how far we’ve come, and how much support we’ve really received as well. I’m very thankful for that.

CS: I should ask, is there a key lesson or key takeaway that you’ve kind of gotten from your experience of being a student during a pandemic?

TN: I think one of the largest, I guess, most impactful for me was –– so the pandemic happened in the middle of sort of my strides towards sort of learning about infectious diseases and getting ready for medical school and all these sort of big ambitious plans that I had. And it really stopped me in my path and sort of brought me back home. And I know spending time with my father –– like I hadn’t in so many years because I had just been abroad –– I mean it was so touching for me and, I guess, really lovely to be back like that. So reflecting on it, I mean taking those moments to just sort of return home in some sense, not necessarily physically, but I guess spending time with those people that mean the most to you. I mean I hadn’t thought about that a lot over the last three or four years when I was studying, but having that sort of being forced to do so is very rewarding, and sort of changed my frame of thinking about how I sort of balance my work and sort of my family and my friends.

CS: Well thank you so, so much for coming on the PAWcast.

TN: No, thank you. It’s been a delight to speak to you and sort of share my experiences. I’m always a little worried if I’m qualified to give these sort of opinions, but if it helps anyone sort of out there, I think I’ve done a decent job.

CS: Of course. And best of luck. I’m looking forward to hearing your address on Sunday.

TN: OK, yeah, we’ll see about that. But thank you so much. (laughs)

PAWcast is a monthly interview podcast produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from FirstCom Music.