Published: May 2, 2016
Andrew “Oak” Nelson

Andrew “Oak” Nelson was chatting with an artist friend when she asked him whether the pursuit of a dense major like engineering physics didn’t “ruin his appreciation for the wonders of the world.”

In responding, Nelson crystallized what he loves about physics and why he is so passionate about it. In fact, he realized the opposite was true.

“You see more wonder in the world after studying physics than before,” said Nelson, this year’s Outstanding Graduate in the College of Engineering and Applied Science and a Boulder native. “It is an opportunity to question what we know and understand it at a deeper level. This leads to making the world a better place.”

But it’s not just his inquisitive nature that has driven Nelson’s success at CU-Boulder, where he’s won just about every honor available to engineering students.

He wants to share his knowledge. And he does, through his work as a teaching assistant who coaches and mentors his peers.

He also has a strong desire to serve his community. He has done that through serving as president of the campus Engineers Without Borders chapter – a stint that led to a trip to Rwanda where he helped build a rainwater catchment system for a small village -  and by serving as a tutor to area middle school students. But he’s also a leader on other fields as well, serving as captain of Colorado Mamabird, CU-Boulder’s club sports Ultimate Frisbee team.

He’s also gotten plenty of hands-on research opportunities and has even authored papers published in academic journals. While doing all these things and minoring in applied mathematics and leadership studies, Nelson has managed to maintain a remarkable 3.972 GPA.

He is also humble and says the honors he’s received are less a reflection of him than of the quality of his undergraduate experience. In addition to classroom work, Nelson is an undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Integrated Plasma Studies. Nelson said CU-Boulder offers students so many opportunities to be involved and the freedom to choose one’s own path. In the fall, he’s headed to Princeton to begin working toward a doctoral degree in plasma physics.

“It’s more of an indicator of the quality people l’ve been able to work with at CU,” he said. “My advisor is absolutely incredible, along with the people I work with in the lab. It’s super collaborative and really supportive.”