Featured Alumnus - October 2023

Paul VanderLaan MD, PhD '96
Where did the time go? A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of experiencing one of those touchstone moments in life…attending one’s 25th-year high school reunion. A welcome homecoming of sorts, being decades since I’ve been back to the places of youth. On the day of the reunion, I spent the morning driving around the southwest suburbs, retracing my journey through the Southwest Chicago Christian School system. Starting with the Oak Lawn campus, the memories were kicked off with sights of the familiar wood-chip playground and the parking spot for Bus 40 that transported me to and from school each day. Next, I headed south to the Tinley Campus, situated right across the parking lot from Faith Church where many hours were spent on weekday evenings in my grey shirt and kerchief as a Calvinist Cadet and Sunday mornings as a congregant. Seeing those familiar buildings, I was reminded of that brand-new school building feel that welcomed me back in the late ‘80s. Finally, I capped off the day’s Odyssean journey with a return to CCHS. Being a Saturday, the building was being used by a foreign language grade school group, it afforded me the opportunity to wander those hallowed halls once again. Many fond memories came to mind while visiting past locker sites in A and C halls, striding by former classrooms, walking a lap around the track, and experiencing a Proustian moment of sorts triggered by the lingering cafeteria aromas of the culinary alchemy by the CCHS Dutch Masters in the kitchen: ah, those famous chocolate chip cookies. I relived decades in a day, kindergarten through high school, all leading up to the reunion that evening. 

At the reunion, it was so good to see so many old friends and familiar faces, sharing what had transpired in our lives since graduating from CCHS in 1996. Like many of the other wooden shoe graduates, I headed up to Michigan where I attended Hope College, pulling through a busy pre-med course load. I then came back to Chicago to complete both medical school and graduate school at the University of Chicago; 8 more years to get my MD and Ph.D. After that, it was off to Boston where I did my anatomic pathology residency training at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, followed by subspecialty fellowships in cytopathology and cardiac/pulmonary pathology. At the age of 34, having finally finished the long road of medical training and standardized tests (though in truth one never stops learning; it is just the classroom that changes), I was recruited to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston, where I’ve been practicing to this day. I’m currently the medical director of the divisions of Surgical Pathology, Cytopathology, and Thoracic Pathology at BIDMC, and am an Associate Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. My days are spent at the microscope, with clinical duties focused on reviewing patient slides from biopsies and surgeries and rendering diagnoses to help guide the treatment decisions made by the patient’s pulmonologist, surgeon, or oncologist. I also actively teach the next generation of doctors, both medical students at Harvard Medical School as well as residents and fellows at BIDMC. Biomedical research is the third aspect of my career, studying lung and thyroid cancer. All of these things have given me the wonderful opportunity to travel extensively, lecturing at medical conferences and teaching at hospitals worldwide. Though, no matter the number of years that pass or miles traveled, Chicago always still feels like home to me.

Overall, the reunion evening was such a brilliant experience, reconnecting with friends whom I’ve known since those kindergarten half-days at Oak Lawn all the way through the classes, games, and dances at CCHS. Not having seen most of them for over a quarter century, it was fascinating to hear where their journeys had led each one of them. Of course, there were infamous stories to be re-told, embarrassing moments to be re-enacted, and recollections of those special teachers who left their mark. Thinking back to the number of CCHS teachers who most impacted me, there are not only the obvious teachers who laid the first bricks in the foundation of a scientific mind (Arnold Kroon, John Meyer, and Jim Greydanus), but also ones that might not be as obvious given my ultimate career path. Glenda VandenBosch who taught me how to think about writing and effective communication, John Kloosterman who taught me how to critically reflect on history and the world in which we live, Jim Kwasteniet who taught me to keep moving forward no matter what race you are running, and Roger Griffioen and Roger Nelson who taught me how to deeply think about what it means to be a Christian in the world today. In truth, every teacher who spent time at the blackboard or overhead projector in front of the classroom imparted something to each and every student that sat in their classrooms, and we are all the better for it. As I finally laid my head to sleep at the end of that long but rewarding reunion day, my last thoughts before drifting off to sleep were ones we all know so well: that the Southwest Chicago Christian School system experience is something special. 

Photo 1. Paul at his office at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Photo 2. Paul at a recent Pathology Grand Rounds presentation at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas.
Photo 3. Paul teaching at a multihead microscope during the COVID pandemic. 
Photo 4. Paul (’96), with brothers Pieter (’99) and Tim (’02), all third generation graduates of CCHS.