A Tribute to Dr. Steven Keating (ArtSci ’10, BSc ’10)

Posted on August 16, 2019

Steven Keating

AN INSPIRED LIFE: Queen’s alumnus Steven Keating died from brain cancer on July 19. (Geoff Tsai photo)

By Keith Pilkey, Professor and Head, Mechanical and Materials Engineering

I remember well the first time I met Steven Keating. He was bright, inquisitive, engaging, articulate, and mature beyond his years. He was the type of undergraduate student you don’t soon forget.

I had volunteered to drive three of our department’s Materials Option students from Kingston to Ottawa where the local chapter of ASM International was holding a dinner to recognize top materials students from universities and colleges in Eastern Ontario. While the thought of spending four hours in a car and two hours at dinner with three students I had never met was a bit daunting from a conversational standpoint, this did not prove to be an issue at all. 

There was a major snow storm that day that transformed the routine drive into a six-hour odyssey but the time was not wasted. Steven sat in the front passenger seat, not likely by coincidence. He engaged the four of us in conversation on a wide variety of topics. We talked about his and the other two students’ experiences so far at Queen’s, the exciting opportunities that lay ahead in their third and fourth years of undergraduate study, my experiences as an engineering undergraduate student 20 years prior, emerging technologies, and the critical role engineers play in devising creative solutions to new and old problems while properly accounting for societal and environmental impacts. I’m always amazed by the energy, enthusiasm, and lofty goals exhibited by our undergraduate students but Steven seemed particularly driven.

I bumped into him periodically before he completed his undergraduate studies at Queen’s. We always had something to talk about, often stemming from the conversations we had during that first, extended meeting. Between third and fourth year, Steven worked as a summer research assistant for Dr. Joshua Pearce, studying new materials for photovoltaic cells. In fourth year, Steven completed an undergraduate thesis with Dr. Mark Daymond.

Mark and I had recently purchased a lab-scale X-ray micro-computed tomography (microCT) scanner that could be used to acquire three-dimensional images of internal features of various materials such as voids in metallic samples or the porous structure of cancellous bone tissue. The microCT scanner was procured with graduate-level research in mind but, given Steven’s exceptional drive and his proficiency for learning new things, he was the first user. He used the scanner to digitally ‘clean’ (i.e. to see through the corroded surface) of ancient bronze coins for a study being undertaken by researchers in the Art Conservation program.

Several faculty members in the Materials Group offered Steven the opportunity to undertake a Master’s degree in our department but he had other plans. He politely and graciously thanked everyone for their offers and explained that, after completing dual undergraduate degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Film and Media at Queen’s, his long-standing dream was to pursue graduate studies in the Media Lab at MIT. As a group, we were disappointed to see Steven leave but we all knew he was destined to do great things. Having now read what Steven has accomplished since he left Queen’s, it goes without saying that he clearly exceeded even our highest expectations. His is an incredible story, inspiring, humbling, with a heart-breaking twist of fate.

Queen’s Engineering is about to launch a marketing campaign built around the tagline: “Curiosity creates a better world.” Steven embodied that ideal. His accomplishments, in his 31 short years, are many; his legacy promises to be even greater. He was the type of undergraduate student you don’t soon forget. He became the type of person we will never forget.

Steven Keating was a Design Engineer at Apple who graduated from Queen’s in 2010 with dual degrees in Mechanical and Materials Engineering and Film and Media. He went on to earn his Master’s and PhD degrees at MIT where he was a member of the MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter team. He died from brain cancer on July 19 at the age of 31.


Celebrating a curious mind: Steven Keating 1988-2019

Can selfies save you? | Steven Keating | TEDxYYC

MIT student explains how curiosity saved his life