Alondra Nelson (1968- )

Alondra Nelson on day two of the Knight Foundation’s Informed, Conversations on Democracy in the Digital Age conference, Biltmore Hotel, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, November 29, 2022
Photograph by Patrick Farrell, courtesy Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Alondra Nelson, lecturer, social scientist, administrator/organizer, was born on April 22, 1968, in Bethesda, Maryland, to career Navy parents Robert Nelson and Delores Nelson. Reared in New Orleans, she has Jamaican roots. Alondra’s siblings are Andrea Nelson, Robert Nelson, and Anthony Nelson. However, Alondra’s earlier years were spent in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then Naples, Italy. The family moved to San Diego, California, and she graduated from the University of San Diego High School in 1986.

Nelson received a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology from the University of California at San Diego in 1994 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In addition, she earned the Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in American Studies from New York University in 1994 and 2003, respectively. After receiving the doctorate, Nelson was a member of the faculty in African American Studies and Sociology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, from 2003 to 2009, thus being the first Black woman to join the Department of Sociology faculty since its founding 128 years earlier.

In 2009, Nelson went to Columbia University as an associate professor of sociology and gender studies. There she was the first African American to be tenured in the Department of Sociology, and she oversaw its Institute for Gender and Sexuality and also served as the first Dean of Social Science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

In 2013, Nelson penned Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination through the University of Minnesota Press; the following year, in 2014, she accepted the position of Academic Curator for the Young Woman Christian Association of New York City and in 2016, she published The social life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome with Beacon Press. The work investigates the utilization of genetic ancestry testing.

From 2017 to 2019, Nelson was the Harold F. Linder chair and professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and president of the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn, New York, a non-profit organization that fosters innovative research, policy, and philanthropic pillars and promotes human well-being on a global scale. Nelson was the first African American, the first person of color, and the second woman to head the Social Science Research Council.

In 2021, Nelson became the White House’s Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for Science and Society during the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Nelson was the keynote speaker at The City College of New York’s 168th Commencement in 2021 and was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. In 2022, she was promoted to Acting Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Alondra Nelson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Medicine. She is married to Garraud Etienne, a non-profit executive.