Alondra Nelson

Alondra Nelson

Biographical Notes

Alondra Nelson is President of the Social Science Research Council. She is also professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she served as the inaugural Dean of Social Science. Nelson began her academic career on the faculty of Yale University, where she was honored with its Poorvu Award for teaching excellence.

Professor Nelson is an interdisciplinary social scientist whose research focuses on how science and its applications may shape the social world, including aspects of personal identification, racial formation, and collective action. In turn, she also explores the ways in which social groups reject, challenge, engage and, in some instances, adopt and mobilize conceptualizations of race, ethnicity, and gender derived from scientific and technical domains.

Nelson has published award-winning and widely acclaimed books and articles exploring the junction of science, medicine, and social inequality. Nelson is author most recently of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome, a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Foundation Award for Best Nonfiction. The Social Life of DNA traces how claims about ancestry are marshaled together with genetic analysis in a range of social ventures. She also took up these themes in a series of publications that are among the earliest empirical investigations of direct-to-consumer genetic testing: “Bio Science: Genetic Ancestry Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry” (Social Studies of Science 38, 2008), "The Factness of Diaspora: The Social Sources of Genetic Genealogy" (in Revisiting Race in a Genomics Age, Rutgers University Press, 2008), and "DNA Ethnicity as Black Social Action?"(Cultural Anthropology 28, 2013). The Social Life of DNA will soon be available in an Arabic translation.

Nelson is also the author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), which was recognized with four scholarly awards, including the Mirra Komarovsky Book Award from the Eastern Sociological Society and the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award from the American Sociological Association Section on Race, Gender and Class. A finalist for the C. Wright Mills Award, Body and Soul is the first book-length exploration of the radical organization’s health-focused activities and has been translated into French.

Nelson is also editor of Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History (with Keith Wailoo and Catherine Lee; Rutgers University Press, 2012) and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (with Thuy Linh N. Tu; New York University Press, 2001). In 2002, Nelson edited “Afrofuturism,” an influential special issue of Social Text, drawing together contributions from scholars and artists who were members of a synonymous online community she established in 1998.

Her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. She has been a fellow of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics, the Bavarian American Academy, the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Nelson has contributed to national policy discussions of inequality and about the social implications of new technologies, including artificial intelligence, big data, and human gene-editing. Nelson serves on the board of directors of the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Research Libraries, on the board for African-American Programs at Monticello, and on the steering committee of the Eric H. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights at Columbia University. She sits on the editorial boards of Social Studies of Science and Public Culture. Her essays, reviews, and commentary have appeared in the Washington Post, Science, the Boston Globe, and on National Public Radio, among other venues.

Nelson is chair of the American Sociological Association Section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology and an elected member of the Sociological Research Association. She has served as a member of the World Economic Forum Network on A.I., the Internet of Things, and Trust as well as the NSF-Sponsored sponsored Council on Big Data, Ethics, and Society. Nelson has been a member of Executive Committee of the Eastern Sociological Society and has also served on the Board of Governors for the Society of Fellows at Columbia. Until 2017, she was academic curator for the YWCA of the City of New York and also served on its program committee.

Raised in Southern California, Nelson is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California at San Diego. She earned her PhD from New York University in 2003.

Visit Professor Nelson's website, follow news about The Social Life of DNA, follow news about Body and Soul, and join her on Twitter here and here.


Ph.D., New York University, 2003