U. of C. Lab High School student ‘an incredibly amazing kid’
By Bridget Doyle
In March, Lane Gunderman, a senior at the University of Chicago Lab High School, will fly to Washington to compete for one of the nation’s most prestigious high school science awards. The 18-year-old is one of 40 finalists — out of more than 1,700 applicants — for the Intel Science Talent Search.
Such an achievement may not seem unusual for a student at an elite private school. But Gunderman’s journey to reach this point has been anything but typical.
Six years ago, he and his family were homeless and living in a crowded North Side shelter. Schoolwork, he says, is what helped him get by.
“There wasn’t much to do at the shelter, and there was very little privacy,” he said Thursday. “I focused my attention on schoolwork — especially since lights had to be out at 8 p.m.”
Through his tenacity in the classroom, Gunderman, who now lives in an Uptown apartment with his mother and younger sister, has found a niche in the intellectual hive of Hyde Park.
“Lane was brought into a completely different part of the city and culture; he started out a little introverted and shy,” Lab School Assistant Principal Asra Ahmed said. “He’s an incredibly amazing kid that’s never asked for any special treatment — even when he should have. He rose to the challenge of this school and has done exceptionally well.”
Gunderman said his family has been “poor or extremely poor” for his whole life. They always managed to scrape by, but in 2006, Gunderman, his parents and two siblings lost their apartment in Rogers Park.
Over the next several months, they stayed with a relative in a pop-up trailer and moved around the Chicago area.
When his parents divorced that same year, the bottom fell out. One night, his father dropped the rest of the family at a North Side police station and drove away. Gunderman and the others slept on a bench in the police station, later moving to a temporary overnight shelter.
The family spent the next year or so in various homeless shelters on the North Side. Previously home-schooled by their mother, Gunderman and his siblings enrolled in public school for the first time.
At Burley Elementary School in Lakeview, Gunderman gained the attention of teachers for his dedication to schoolwork. He received high grades and did well on tests, leading teachers to suggest he apply to the U. of C. Lab High School.
Gunderman’s application to Lab and back story stood out, Ahmed said. He was accepted and offered a full scholarship from the Malone Foundation, a group that provides educational options for gifted children.
After a year of living in homeless shelters, Gunderman and his family managed to stay in various apartments. And after 31/2 years at Lab School, Gunderman is thriving both academically and socially.
He was accepted last year into the school’s Summer Link Science Research Program, which helps place science-focused students in real lab settings. Gunderman was able to work with Greg Engel, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, in a lab where his Intel Science Talent Search project was born.
Last summer, Gunderman joined a working team of scientists and graduate students on a project that “explains how photosynthesis uses quantum physics,” Engel said.
After just a few weeks of working together, Engel said he realized Gunderman’s immense potential in the field.
“Lane jumped into a difficult project in a complex system. It was great fun watching him tackle big questions in the field,” Engel said. “He’s so driven and talented. I think he’s someone with potential to be a truly spectacular scientist.”
Over the summer, Gunderman created a computer simulation of his project, along with an in-depth analysis of the work. That was submitted to Intel in November, and this week he found out he was one of 40 finalists and could win up to $100,000.
“It’s the dream of a science teacher to see someone achieve what Lane has,” said Lab School biology teacher Sharon Housinger, who had encouraged Gunderman to apply to the Summer Link Program.
Gunderman has big plans for his future. He has applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago and is also looking at schools like Harvard, Princeton and the California Institute of Technology.
The trip to Washington, though, will be his first time aboard an airplane. He admitted he’s a little nervous about that.
“It’ll be an adventure to my next adventure,” he said.