Engineering grad seeks new perspectives

Ethan Keeler — a 24-year-old, self-proclaimed “local Montana boy” from Butte — graduated in May of 2012 with a degree in electrical engineering. He has two graduate school offers on the table: one from Columbia University in New York City and another from the University of Washington in Seattle.

While still undecided as to which elite school he will attend, Keeler spent this past year working as a research associate under engineering professor Wataru Nakagawa. Keeler assists in building “optical nanostructures,” which are used to manipulate light in useful ways and also make life-saving devices like handheld skin-cancer detectors possible.

He works in an Engineering and Physical Sciences lab called the “clean room,” which is 99 percent free of environmental pollutants such as dust, airborne microbes and chemical vapors. According to Keeler, it is absolutely essential to keep the room free of dust particles because “dust can be 1,000 times bigger than the structure you’re making. It just gets in the way.”

“It’s a continuation from my undergrad research,” he said. “Taking this last year off has given me a great break from school, allowed me to finish my research and have time to make really good grad school applications.”

While calling his research at MSU valuable, he would like to leave the state for graduate school to see “what else the world has to offer.”

For this educational decision, location is key, as it will take Keeler six years to complete his Ph.D. program. “I’ve visited New York before,” he said, “but it might be a little too urban for me to live there.” Keeler sees Seattle as a “crossover” between Montana and New York.

“Seattle and New York are big places,” he said. “Major cities like these are portals to the rest of the world.”

“It’ll be a stretch and a big step,” he continued, “but I think leaving Montana will be good for me.“

Keeler began studying at MSU’s College of Engineering right out of high school, and during his undergraduate years, he was president of Tao Beta Pi, an engineering honors society at MSU, as well as president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He has always been interested in electricity, he said, seeing it as “mysterious and cool.”

“Being inquisitive,” he said, “I decided to pursue it as a career.”

According to Keeler, nanotechnology shows humans are not the only beings which use electricity and light particles. “They’re found all over nature,” he said, giving examples of butterfly wings and stained glass. Butterfly wings manipulate light to show iridescence while stained glass windows change colors based on tiny gold particles.

“Things in this world are getting smaller and smaller,” said Keeler. “This is why research is so important. MSU does a fantastic job of preparing us.”

Reflecting on his experience as a student, he said, “Something I really like about MSU is our hands-on approach to learning. The students get in the lab right off the bat during their freshman year.”

“MSU teaches you to work hard, but also play hard,” he continued. “It’s a great balance.”

He put his engineering degree to use last Christmas by creating a lightshow at his parents’ house in Butte — complete with a Christmas tunes medley.

One of his goals is to eventually build a melodic, Vegas-style fountain in Montana. “While others have their cat videos,” Keeler said, “I have my musically synchronized fountain videos like the Fountains of Bellagio in Vegas.”