Wunderteen

December 17, 2021

PEG student Katie Keegan '22 on the Virginia Beach boardwalk.

Wunderteen Katie Keegan ’22 is at it again: The 17-year-old recently completed Google’s Computer Science Research Mentorship Program and co-published a pair of scholarly articles detailing, among other things, a novel approach to protecting digital copyrights.

Both achievements — and ambitions for a new career path — grew out of an experience funded by an MBU Experiential Learning Grant. Keegan, a Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG) student, was taking flying lessons to earn her pilot’s license. She hoped it would be a stepping stone toward becoming an astronaut. 

But flying taught her something unexpected. 

“I realized I was more interested in the underlying physics of flight than operating the plane,” said Keegan. 

PEG student Katie Keegan '22 on the Virginia Beach boardwalk.

While the applied mathematics major went on to achieve licensure, the revelation inspired her to shift academic gears. She worked with MBU mathematics department chair Dr. John Ong to get her bearings.

“MBU has given me so many opportunities to pursue different ideas and directions,” said Keegan. She came to understand “that kind of intellectual freedom is extremely important to me. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself in a specialist career that leaves me doing the same thing day in and day out for the rest of my life.”

Ong suggested she explore computational mathematics. Keegan took his advice and attended a summer research program at Brown University in 2020. It was there that she fell in love with the field’s vast possibilities. 

“At first it sounds kind of drab, because you’re mostly dealing with data science,” she said. But data can be used for literally anything. For instance, creating models to combat climate change, guiding nano vehicles to deliver medicine to specifically targeted areas in the body, or improving self-driving cars. 

Keegan was thrilled. 

“You’re essentially using a variety of mathematical tools to analyze data and put it to use [in some way, shape, or form],” she said. 

While the content may change, the toolset stays more-or-less the same. That meant she could take an interest in, say, aeronautics, solve this or that problem, then move on to challenges in a completely different industry.

Katie Keegan '22 prepares for a flying lesson over the Shenandoah Valley.

At Brown, Keegan worked with a group of student peers conducting research around a foundational mathematical tool called singular value decomposition. They wagered the approach could be used to create novel watermarking technologies and provide better digital protection for copyrighted materials like songs, movies, or photos. 

The team’s ideas proved groundbreaking. Their findings were published in a scholarly journal maintained by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in early 2021. An invitation to present at the organization’s annual national conference soon followed. 

The recognition was assuring. Keegan parlayed the success into attending a follow-up summer program at Emory University, where she studied ways singular value decomposition could be used to enhance diagnostic performance in medical imaging. She and her team will present their findings at the 2022 Joint Mathematics Meetings conference in Seattle.     

“[All of this has] been a huge confidence booster, because [before studying at Brown] I had actually never taken a computer science course,” laughed Keegan. 

Ong encouraged the blossoming math star to reach out to PEG alumni and Google quantum electronics engineer Marissa Giustina ’07 for career insight. Giustina helped plug Keegan into the company’s renowned Computer Science Research Mentorship Program. The two worked together virtually for 12 weeks this past fall discussing topics like how to identify research pathways and professional research problems, picking the right graduate school, navigating publication processes, and applying to postdoctoral, academic, or industry positions.

“It was amazing to have access to someone [like Giustina],” said Keegan. “It helped me gain a much clearer understanding of the steps I need to take to build a fulfilling career.”

While Keegan doesn’t know what specifically the future may hold, she does know this: Her time at MBU has equipped her with the skills she needs to achieve her dreams.

“I feel like I found a real home here,” said Keegan. The attentiveness of her professors and mentors, the help she received from staffers, the friends she made? “I know that’s something I’ll always be grateful for; that will always be a part of who I am.”

“MBU has provided me with so many opportunities to pursue different ideas and directions. That intellectual freedom has become extremely important to me.”
Katie Keegan '22

MBU’S PROGRAM for the Exceptionally Gifted is one of only a handful in the U.S. that enable gifted teens as young as 13 to pursue a college degree fulltime. Click HERE to learn more.