Rising Star Professional Achievement Award

New to the Laboratory Schools in 2012, the Rising Star Professional Achievement Award recognizes an alumnus or alumna who has made an impact in their field and graduated within the last 30 years.

The 2016 Rising Star Professional Achievement Award Winner:

Smita N. Shah, ’91

Engineer and entrepreneur Smita N. Shah founded her infrastructure firm, SPAAN Tech Inc., two years after she graduated from MIT with a degree in civil engineering. The firm has a breadth of expertise, including planning and designing transportation, airports, and buildings. She has been recognized for her leadership as the Small Business Administration Illinois 8(a) Graduate Business of the Year in 2014 and as a finalist for Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009. SPAAN Tech was also included on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies for 2007 and 2009. She developed her technical and management skills by earning a bachelor of science from Northwestern University, a master of science from MIT, and a postgraduate certificate in management studies from Oxford University.

She has been personally recognized for her philanthropy and civic leadership and dedicates her time and expertise to professional, civic, and community organizations. She serves as a member of the MIT Corporation Development Council; the vice chair of the Chicago Plan Commission; a board member of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation; a membership chair of the Economic Club of Chicago; and a vice chair of the Regents for Loyola University of Chicago. Passionate about children and our future, she serves as a trustee at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and as vice president of the President’s Council at the Museum of Science and Industry, where she works to contribute to the museum’s vision of connecting children and the sciences.

She served on the regional selection panel for the White House Fellows Program in 2006 and 2007. She served as a member of the Illinois Arts Council for seven years, chairing the Program Grants Panel and the Master Apprentice Program. She participated in the past five Democratic National Conventions by serving as a delegate; as a member of the Rules Committee and the Platform Committee; or, most recently, as a parliamentarian. In 2011 she was selected National Community Leader of the Year by the American Consulting Engineers Council.

Past winners of the award are:


Debra Gittler, '98

Debra Gittler is Founder and Director of Contextos, an educational NGO established in El Salvador and the United State. Previously, she worked as the Coordinator and Lead Author of El Salvador's national teacher training strategy in the area of literacy, and was a teacher in the Honduras and the South Bronx. In 2013, Debra was recognized as a Fellow by Echoing Green, which recognizes global leaders in social innovation; she was selected as one of 20 fellows from a group of 2,800 applicants and is the first Fellow to work in El Salvador.


Graham Moore, '99
Screenwriter and author living in Los Angeles, CA. His debut novel, The Sherlockian, was published in 2010 and is a New York Times best seller. Mr. Moore's adapted screenplay for the movie The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was at the top of the 2011 Black List of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. In 2015, he received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on that film. Mr. Moore is also writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of Eric Larson's novel, The Devil in the White City, for Warner Bros., starring Leonardo Di Caprio. He was the U-High Commencement Speaker for the graduating class of 2014.

Bert Vaux, '86
Reader in Linguistics, teaching phonology and morphology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Mr. Vaux specializes in phonological theory, dialectology, field methodology, and the languages of the Caucasus. He previously taught at Harvard University, where he was frequently selected as one of the top professors in Harvard College by graduating seniors, and was twice named one of the best professors at Harvard by the Harvard Crimson. More than 60,000 individuals have completed his online dialect surveys, making the the largest linguistic surveys to date.


Wendell Lim, '83
Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Director of the UCSF Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology, director of the UCSF/UCB NIH Nanomedicine Development Center, and deputy director of the NSF Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center.

Sarah Hanck, '96
Provides support for Merck for Mothers, focusing on program development, implementation and evaluation. Served as the Asia program director at HealthRight International, developing and managing programs addressing maternal and child health, family planning, HIV, tuberculosis, and gender-based violence in Nepal and Vietnam. Coordinated a large-scale HIV implementation research project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Avahan Initiative in India.


Kwame Raoul, '82
State Senator 13th District of Illinois; championed legislation on criminal justice reform including the recent historic legislation that abolishes the death penalty and legislation creating the Torture Inquiry Commission. He also championed legislation aimed at breaking the code of silence by deterring intimidation of those who cooperate with law enforcement officers.

Mollie Stone, '97
Associate conductor of the Chicago Children’s Choir; studied how South Africans are using choral music in the struggle against HIV, and most recently, she presented her DVD, “Vela Vela,” through the Ravinia Festival’s Reach*Teach*Play Education Program and elsewhere. In 2011, she produced a second teaching DVD on South African choral music. Ms. Stone currently lectures and gives workshops on black South African choral music across the United States and Europe.