Senior wins prestigious doctoral research fellowship

Katie Keegan PEG ’22 sighed when she got the call from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Graduate Computations Science Fellowship program: Why were they personally phoning hundreds of students whose applications had been rejected?

Then she heard the word ‘congratulations.’ Keegan’s hands began to shake: The now 18-year-old was joining the ranks of fewer than 5 percent of students that have received the fellowship  historically. 

Former Mathematics department chair John Ong called her scholarly accomplishment a significant milestone at Mary Baldwin. “As her advisor, I am in awe of her discipline, ambition and achievement,” he said.

Graduating senior and computational mathematics wiz Katie Keegan ’22 just won one of the nation’s most prestigious graduate research fellowships.

THE FELLOWSHIP WAS  founded in 1991 to help doctoral students pursue groundbreaking computational innovations at the nation’s top engineering, computer science, physics, medical, and applied mathematics programs. The award is open to undergraduate seniors and lower level graduate students, and is given to about two-dozen new recipients a year — the vast majority of whom come from famed research institutions like Harvard, University of California Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford. Competition is fierce because the fellowship fully covers four years of tuition, health insurance, and student fees, and provides a $45,000 annual stipend. 

“Honestly, I feel like my MBU background was an asset for this,” said Keegan. Application materials emphasized “interdisciplinary work and exploration of a variety of areas, and I think [our] broad curriculum really epitomizes that!”

Keegan, from Mount Olive, NJ, came to Mary Baldwin at age 14 through its nationally acclaimed Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. She has since worked with faculty and staff to pursue interest after interest, ranging from using special scholarship funding to become a certified pilot, to connecting with PEG alumni at Google who helped plug her into the company’s Computer Science Research Mentorship Program, to participating in prestigious summer research programs at Brown University and Emory University. Breakthroughs around new digital copyrighting techniques led to presentations at national and international conferences, and recruitment from elite graduate schools.   

Katie Keegan ’22 prepares for a flying lesson over the Shenandoah Valley. She used an MBU Experiential Learning Grant to earn her pilot’s license.

KEEGAN ULTIMATELY CHOSE  to enroll at Emory University — and filled one of just six incoming slots in its mathematics Ph.D. program. She says it was studying with professors last summer that tipped the scales. 

After four years of what she calls MBU’s over-the-top approach to student-centered learning, Keegan knew she “wanted to be somewhere that would enable me to keep having personal relationships with professors. [At Emory,] I was so impressed by how they were doing pioneering research, but still seemed to care deeply about students’ growth and wellbeing.” 

The experience mirrored her time at Mary Baldwin, with faculty members devoting “hours and hours of time to helping us despite countless other important professional demands.”

Keegan plans to use the DOE fellowship to research machine learning and deep learning at Emory. 

“Data science and artificial intelligence are really big topics right now,” she said. “My goal is to help make these cutting edge, data-driven technologies more mathematically and theoretically rigorous, scalable to huge quantities of data, and applicable in a broad range of scientific contexts.”

Keegan is quick to add she intends to apply her skills outside the academic bubble.  

“I love math on its own,” she said, “but it’s important to me that my work moves in a direction that’s motivated by impactful, real-world problems.”

“MBU taught me the value of my own intellectual freedom and curiosity. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself in a specialist career: I want to pursue my interests and intrigues, and discover where they’ll lead me.”

Katie Keegan PEG ’22

Did you know MBU’S Program for the Exceptionally Gifted  is one of only a handful in the U.S. that enables gifted teens as young as 13 to pursue a college degree full time on campus? CLICK HERE to learn more.