Rhodes Scholar Nic Fishman: A techno-optimist with a passion for social good

Nov. 27, 2020, 7:43 p.m.

This article is the first in a three-part series about Stanford’s Rhodes Scholars-elect for 2021: Nicolas Fishman, Abdallah AbuHashem and Ziyi Wang. If formally accepted by the Rhodes trustees, the trio will join a cohort of 99 other scholars-elects from around the globe on a full scholarship to the University of Oxford in England.

Rhodes Scholar-elect Nicolas Fishman ’21 arrived at Stanford a self-described “techno-optimist.” As a frosh, he leapfrogged into courses usually taken by sophomores, skipping the computer science intro series in favor of advanced classes like CS 161: “Design and Analysis of Algorithms” and CS 109: “Probability for Computer Scientists.” Although he originally planned to study computer science and bioengineering, his first year at Stanford steered him onto a different track — one that would eventually lead him down the path of becoming a Rhodes scholar.

On the final day of a first-year bioengineering class, Fishman’s professor asked the students who would hypothetically modify their babies using CRISPR, a gene-editing tool. About half the students raised their hands. The moment was a turning point for Fishman, who was appalled that the professor had asked the question without any acknowledgement of the ethical implications of the technology, like what it would do for the disabled community.

It was Fishman’s first, but not his last, run-in with what he deemed “ethical illiteracy” in Stanford’s technical departments. Following the incident, Fishman gave up his “innocent” approach to technology; instead, he began large-scale work on how to improve people’s lives, both inside and outside the classroom. He applied his technological expertise to social problems, researching gentrification with “big data,” applying computational models to national voter files and digitally organizing grassroots movements for progressive politics, work that made him a standout candidate for the Rhodes scholarship. 

This year, the scholarship was awarded to 32 students in North America and 102 globally; two other Stanford students, Abdallah AbuHashem and Ziyi Wang, joined Fishman in receiving the award. If formally accepted by the Rhodes trustees, the trio will study at the University of Oxford in England for two to four years. At Oxford, Fishman plans to study imperialism and statistics, building off his work on data-driven justice at Stanford.

Although Fishman is still pursuing a degree in computer science, he dropped his original plans of bioengineering in favor of sociology; he chose the new major after exploring Stanford’s sociology, history and STS departments, where he says he found people “who had thought about issues deeply and wanted to make things better.”

In his newfound intellectual home, professors described a one-of-a-kind student, deeply committed to fighting every sort of injustice. Sociology professor David Grusky, who has collaborated with Fishman on gentrification research, described the scholar-elect as someone who cares deeply about issues even “when they wouldn’t show up on his resume,” something Grusky said wasn’t true of every student. 

“Not only is Nic incisive and a quick-study, but he’s also incredibly dedicated to projects even when he doesn’t receive credit — what more can you ask from a student?” Grusky said. 

At Data for Progress, a national organization that studies voter perspectives on progressive policies, organizers expressed dual-parts amazement and enthusiasm about working with Fishman. Brittany Bennett, data director for the Sunrise Movement, a climate-justice advocacy group, said Fishman is both a “wonder kid” and “sociable,” a combination she says she has yet to find in anyone else. 

“As a sophomore and junior, Nic built up an entire national-level platform for our get-out-the-vote efforts” Bennett said. “He’s a genius, but he also has the strongest conviction for justice out of anyone I’ve ever seen — he has read every book by W.E.B. du Bois, and then some.”

Bennett, who recommended Fishman to the Rhodes committee, said she was excited to see what he would accomplish, and hoped that he would return to what she called “the good fight” of organizing grassroots campaigns for progressive policies. 

At Oxford, Fishman says he plans to study imperialism and statistics, a pursuit he calls a “continuation” of his work at Stanford and Data for Progress.

Eventually, Fishman wants to follow in the footsteps of scholars like Raj Chetty and Ruha Benjamin, who he says give activists and politicians the data and the research they need to inform their decision-making. Chetty, a former Stanford professor, is one of the decade’s most eminent economists for his work on economic mobility and the fading promise of the American Dream. Benjamin is an author and professor at Princeton whose work investigates the intersections of race, justice and technology.

“I want to be in a position where I can do high-impact research,” Fishman said. “The work Chetty and Benjamin do is inherently political, but they are able to turn their research into real change — I want to do something similar.”

Danial Shadmany ’21, who says he considers himself lucky to call Fishman both his roommate and his best friend, said Fishman’s passion for justice and change touches every portion of his life.

“It seems like he’s a pessimistic person at first when he talks about social issues or climate change. But, once you understand the solution that he has in mind, you understand that he’s secretly really optimistic.”

Contact Yash Dalmia at yashdalmia ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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