Senior Jack Fox Maria Keen is applying their research experiences in the STEM field at Florida State University to help advance mental health awareness.
A native of Parkland, Florida, Keen transferred to Florida State in fall 2017 after graduating from Tallahassee Community College with Honors and an associate’s degree.
“That’s when I realized there was this whole realm where you can combine math and biology, which is what I really enjoy doing,” Keen said.
While attending FSU’s transfer orientation, Keen met Dr. Gordon Erlebacher, chair of the Department of Scientific Computing, who described the diverse skill sets that undergraduates within the program develop. That prompted Keen to pursue two fields of study — biomathematics and scientific computing.
During their first semester at FSU, Keen found some of the topics in their classes challenging. They knew other students felt the same way but were probably too afraid to speak up because of the competitiveness of the STEM community. That’s when Keen came up with the idea for The Fellowship of Computational Scientists, a registered student organization of which Keen is both the founder and current president.
“I wanted to start the conversation of ‘Hey, I found this confusing,’ and then someone else agrees with you and everyone starts to open up,” Keen said. “Then you feel less alone, which is really important to feeling connected in your classes. You can start to figure out together what to ask and who to ask.”
A leading advocate for mental health awareness among FSU students, Keen facilitates collaboration among students within the STEM community.
Keen organizes weekly meetings for The Fellowship of Computational Scientists in order to review that week’s material. Graduate students are also asked to come in to help clarify relevant topics. The meetings are open to anyone taking the class, across all disciplines and majors. Keen takes pride in how the organization facilitates collaboration across all STEM majors.
To bring mental health awareness to more than just STEM students at FSU, Keen also earned a spot on the College of Arts and Sciences’ Student Leadership Council last year. They currently serve as the chair, overseeing the entire council and its representatives from the 18 departments within the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Our goal is to bring the department representatives together and find out what students need from their departments,” Keen said. “The big thing when I was pitching my role for president in the spring was focusing on mental health awareness for all these departments.”
They have taken initiative and met with the director of RENEW (Realizing Everyone’s Need for Emotional Wellness), the director of the University Counseling Center and the director of the Student Resilience Project to discuss ways the College of Arts and Sciences can improve bringing these resources to students. Keen’s goal is for all students to know about resources the university offers, and even more importantly, where to find them.
Keen has also conducted research in hopes of better understanding mental health from a scientific standpoint. They plan to use this research to advocate for mental health awareness in a more effective way.
In February 2019, Keen received a $4,000 IDEA Grant from the Helen Louise Lee Undergraduate Research Award for creating a biophysical model of the auditory system in anurans. Keen believes there is a strong tie between the auditory system in the brain and mental health, and they took part in this research to understand a more foundational perspective and develop the fundamental skills for computational neuroscience.
Keen was able to present their research findings at the 2019 Presidential Showcase of Undergraduate Research Excellence, which they described as a highlight of their FSU experience, especially because friends and family were able to see them present.
Dr. Richard Bertram, director of the Biomathematics Program, has worked closely with Keen during their time at Florida State and encouraged them to apply for the IDEA research grant as well as all their academic and extracurricular pursuits.
“Jack has been extremely active outside of the classroom,” Bertram said. “Their enthusiasm for science and service is obvious to everyone who meets them.”
Keen also serves as an ambassador for the Student Disability Resource Center, was a finalist for the 2019 Alumni Ambassador Award and is a recipient of the Department of Scientific Computing’s Undergraduate Scholarship.
“Florida State has given me extraordinary research and leadership opportunities,” Keen said. “I believe I have the skills to not only be a great scientist, but to be a great person because of my experiences here.”
With graduation on the horizon for spring 2020, Keen’s long-term goal is to continue researching the fundamentals of the auditory system and its potential applications in mental health. They plan to do this while attending graduate school as a doctoral candidate in either computational neuroscience or biomathematics. Keen’s ultimate aim is to become a professor and mentor the next generation of students.