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Once homeless, now Uptown teen is competing in elite science fair and applying to Harvard

Lane Gunderman poses University Chicago Lab School Thursday January 24 2013. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Lane Gunderman poses at the University of Chicago Lab School on Thursday, January 24, 2013. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 27, 2013 6:19AM

Every morning and afternoon, Lane Gunderman travels an hour and a half from his Uptown home to his Hyde Park school.

It’s just one example of his dedication to his studies, despite obstacles.

“I was often late for my 8 o’clock class,” said David Derbes, the science department chair at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools where Gunderman is a student. “He was never late.”

Gunderman, 18, who at one time was homeless and whose family has struggled financially, hasn’t let early wake up calls or more serious hardships get in his way.

The senior at the prestigious school will get on an airplane for the first time in March and travel to Washington, D.C., where he will be one of 40 high school students ­— out of more than 1,500 who applied — competing in one of the nation’s most elite science competitions. The top prize in the Intel Science Talent Search is $100,000 and multiple past winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, said Wendy Hawkins the executive director of the Intel Foundation.

“It’s exciting,” Gunderman said.

Gunderman’s path to the competition began in the summer when Gunderman was part of his high school’s Summer Link Science Research program, which placed him in the lab of Greg Engel, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago.

It was there that Gunderman’s project was born.

Gunderman “built a theoretical model to test ideas on how biology may take advantage of quantum physics,” Engel said.

“I researched a particular protein in photosynthesis and the way it transfers energy from the outside world to the reaction center in the plant,” Gunderman said.

It’s research that could one day be used to create new types of material that conduct electricity in a more efficient way, he said.

“He was extremely resourceful and he had a sense of vision and dedication for doing that which is just incredible for a high school student,” Engel said. “He represents the best and the brightest of the next generation of scientists.”

Aside from schoolwork, Gunderman is a regular teenager who likes to play video games and watch “The Office” — the American version, not the British one because “I can’t understand their accents,” he said.

He didn’t want to discuss in detail the tough situations his family has been through, but those who know him said he’s an extremely driven teen.

“He has overcome and continues to overcome a great deal of adversity,” said Asra Ahmed, the high school’s assistant principal. “He is just so dedicated to his work and expects nothing in return from anyone here.”

Gunderman was home-schooled until he was in the 6th grade. When he enrolled at Burley Elementary School, teachers there saw his potential and encouraged him to apply to the Lab school. He has a full scholarship to the elite school.

“He has an old soul and young eyes. It’s an unusual combination,” Derbes said.

Gunderman’s 13-year-old sister also attends the Lab school, but “She’s more a humanities person,” Gunderman said.

Meanwhile, Gunderman is waiting to hear back from the many prestigious universities he applied to, including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, among others.

“Lane is somebody who against all odds managed to make this success story of himself,” Ahmed said.

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