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Forester News

Niam Abeysiriwardena ’20 leaves his mark on Lake Forest College

Members of the Class of 2020 are the first in Lake Forest College history to complete their degrees in a remote-learning environment. However, this year’s graduating class holds another distinction: At 17-years-old, Niam Abeysiriwardena ’20 is believed to be the youngest graduate in the College’s history.

Abeysiriwardena was 13 in 2016 when he began as a Forester first-year. Two years later, at 15, he and Sam Gascoigne ’20 became first-author and co-author, respectively, with the publication of their paper “Algal Bloom Expansion Increases Cyanotoxin Risk in Food” in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. Niam extended the year-long research project that he started and designed in 2017, culminating in this paper, with continued work on a model for algal blooms with Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Robert Holliday in the Lake Forest computer science program.

In May 2019, Niam became one of Lake Forest College’s two Goldwater Scholarship recipients—at 16, Abeysiriwardena holds the record as the College’s youngest Goldwater recipient. In that same year, Abeysiriwardena advanced his research in the 2019 national Parkinson’s Foundation-American Parkinson Disease Association Summer Student Fellowship Program.

Niam was a Richter Scholar during his first summer at the College working on Parkinson’s research, and later had an opportunity to work with Professor Mitra Hartmann at Northwestern University on biomedical engineering research. Disque D. and Carol Gram Deane Professor of Biological Sciences Shubhik Debburman, Niam’s advisor, reached out to Professor Hartmann after realizing that some of Niam’s interests lay outside the college’s scope.

Throughout his childhood, Niam has been mathematically and overall intellectually curious, leading to collecting several accolades and scholarships throughout his early years. While representing the College at the 2018 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, the most prestigious math event for college students, Niam ranked within the top 10 percent of all participants in North America.

“We noticed Niam was a very curious child,” his mom, Angela Anandappa, said. “But we didn’t realize there was anything unusual.” At the age of 3, his Montessori school teachers saw he was mastering work that 6-year-olds in his cluster were having trouble completing, and it was a family friend, a school psychologist, who recommended Niam be tested. 

“He completed kindergarten and first grade in four months, then went on to second grade, where he did more advanced work with the gifted program at the Academy for Science and Foreign Language in Alabama,” his mom said. After completing third and fourth grade at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Kentucky and taking the summer off, Niam had “grown so much intellectually, advancing from fifth through eighth grade in about a year through home school.” He started ninth grade at New Century Technology High School in Alabama at the age of 10.

Online remote learning, some on-site classes, and some homeschooling followed, with Niam completing his senior year at Glenbrook South High School in Illinois at the age of 13. Three months later, he started at Lake Forest College.

The neuroscience and computer science double major plans to go to graduate school after he finishes his undergraduate degree in May, but there is no definite timeline considering the current global pandemic.

“I’m sad not to be with my friends for graduation, but I’m so thankful I had the last four years of experiences with them,” Niam said. “I’ve enjoyed my time at Lake Forest College, where I found a connected and collegial environment and a supportive faculty that wanted their students to succeed. I’ve learned many things, but overall I feel I’ve grown most personally and in my ability to not only think, but also communicate, even in the face of adversity.”

Niam will be attending graduate school and looks forward to exploring data, performing more model-based research, and using newly discovered tools as he prepares for the next big steps; he is currently doing independent research with a biogeoepidemiological approach.