Alexander Laun, PGSS 2006

Originally published as an “Alumni Spotlight” in the PGSS Alumni Newsletter, Spring 2014

While in high school at Woodland Hills in Pittsburgh, Alex Laun took every AP science class he could, but he hadn’t really thought of applying to PGSS until his teachers suggested it. “They remembered the positive experiences of several of their past students who attended the program,” he explains, “and these same teachers encouraged me to submit an application. I think that these teachers recognized some of my interests before I was even aware that I had an affinity for science and engineering.” That affinity eventually took Laun to the US Naval Academy and MIT and may ultimately take him back to the role of those teachers: someone who encourages the pursuit of science, technology, engineering, and math in others.

Currently a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Navy, Laun was always a “hands-on engineer,” starting with Legos as a kid, but he credits PGSS with developing other facets crucial to his career. First, PGSS forced him to delve into more subjects, such as organic chemistry, and to think more theoretically, which wasn’t always easy. “I definitely struggled with the problem sets, and the program truly forced me to question whether I really did have an aptitude for science.” Laun found he had the aptitude, but he also found something else: other people did, too. He enjoyed the camaraderie as much as being impressed by other people’s skills. Working with his peers at PGSS 2006 on a wind turbine design gave Laun his second crucial experience, one “that proved to be the most valuable today: the opportunity to work in a diverse, technically-focused team to solve a unique engineering problem.”

Convinced by PGSS to study engineering, Laun graduated from the Naval Academy with a BS in Naval Architecture. He quickly followed that with MS degrees from MIT in Ocean Engineering and Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. His research and internship experience included computer simulations of underwater explosions and various new technologies, including unmanned underwater vehicles. His technical and collaborative skills from PGSS stood him in good stead, as did the lesson in endurance: “My struggles with problem sets at MIT,” he notes, although years apart, “were very reminiscent of those long nights spent struggling with the PGSS problem sets.” Having completed Naval Nuclear Power School, Laun is now studying at the Nuclear Power Training Unit in Charleston, South Carolina, to become a Submarine Warfare Officer.

Laun, however, can already imagine a career beyond the Navy. He’d like to return the investments others have made in him by becoming a professor himself or political lobbyist for science and technology. Laun wants to see all levels of government support and expand their support of STEM fields and technology incubators. After all, he has seen programs such as PGSS make a difference. “We all tend to take modern technology for granted—we don’t think of the years of engineering that went into developing the iPhone or the iPad—but PGSS provides an opportunity for the innovators of tomorrow to awaken their technical interests and passions.”