Jason Nielsen

Jason Nielsen

2014 Wall of Honor Recipient:

Jason Nielsen of Santa Cruz, California is the recipient of Pleasant Valley High School’s 2014 Wall of Honor Distinguished Alumni Award.  Mr. Nielsen, a 1990 PVHS graduate, will be honored by the Pleasant Valley Community School District at the Academic Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, April 16.  He will be inducted into the Wall of Honor, which recognizes past students for their academic achievements and contributions to society.

Mr. Nielsen, the son of Charles and Diane Nielsen, received a double Bachelor of Science degree in both physics and mathematics with distinction from Iowa State University in 1994.  While at Iowa State, he was awarded a national Goldwater Scholarship for research and inducted into Phi Betta Kappa for academic achievement.

Following graduation, Mr. Nielsen pursued his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned his Ph.D. in 2001.  As part of his studies, Mr. Nielsen joined an experimental particle physics group and worked on the world’s largest particle accelerator at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva.  The main focus of this group was the search for the Higgs boson, a new particle whose interactions with other fundamental particles explains their masses.  He also hosted tours and educational programs at CERN for American, French, and Italian visitors, all of whom were captivated by the size and scope of their physics experiments.

With his freshly-minted Ph.D., Mr. Nielsen moved to join Fermilab near Chicago to work on the more powerful Tevatron particle accelerator.  As a postdoctoral scholar associated with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he focused on precise measurements of the top quark and on more advanced searches for the Higgs boson.  During this time, Mr. Nielsen continued his physics outreach to local schools and mentored Chicago high school students on career choices and college applications.  His search for the Higgs boson was the most sensitive at that time, but they could not provide firm evidence for the elusive particle.

In 2006, Mr. Nielsen accepted a faculty position in the Physics Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2012.  UCSC is a world-class research university with an exceptionally strong focus on undergraduate education and community service.  He teaches all levels of physics, from first year introductory physics to graduate-level particle physics.  

In addition to teaching, Mr. Nielsen collaborates on the ATLAS experiment at CERN.  The ATLAS experiment, perhaps the world’s largest scientific instrument, measures proton-proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider.  Besides serving as the current U.S. Physics Support Manager for ATLAS, he also works with graduate and undergraduate students in the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics on measurements of the newly-discovered Higgs boson and on measurements of quantum chromodynamics.  His ATLAS collaboration received the European Physical Society High-Energy Physics prize in 2013 for the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Mr. Nielsen has given many public lectures on particle physics to community organizations and high school groups.  He also helps organize an annual BalloonFest high school science event based on experiments with low-altitude weather balloons.  Many of his students go on to graduate studies in science or the tech industry in nearby Silicon Valley. He is a member of the American Physical Society as well as a collaborating author of 70 papers published in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Mr. Nielsen lives in Santa Cruz with his wife, Stephanie, who is a proud alumna of Bettendorf HS and the University of Iowa.  

The Pleasant Valley School District played a large role in Mr. Nielsen’s early life.  “I will always be grateful to Mrs. Spaete and the Pleasant Valley faculty for their encouragement and willingness to answer extra questions from a curious student.”

He graduated with top honors from PVHS, where he participated in chorus, basketball, Thespians, Academic Decathlon and Quiz Bowl.  He was a member of the National Honor Society and a finalist for the National Merit Scholarship. He was part of the Research Science Institute and a Tandy Technology Scholar.  In addition, he was honored for being part of the Des Moines Register All-State Academic Team, First Team and the USA Today All-USA Academic Team, Honorable Mention.

A reception for Mr. Nielsen will be held in the PVHS library at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.  Faculty, staff, students and the public are invited to attend.  The Academic Awards program will begin at 7 p.m. in the high school gymnasium.