, Muskogee, OK

April 14, 2014

Next stop NASA for science student

By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer

— “Nerd” is a term David Keck accepts with pride.

“There’s no shame in it at all,” the computer science major said. “If somebody likes sports a lot, they’re not necessarily called a nerd, but they certainly have a passion. I have a passion for science, but instead of being called a ‘sports nut,’ it’s a ‘nerd.’”

Keck, 24, said some of his earliest memories involve checking things and experimenting.

“I was curious then about scientific things, but I didn’t know about them,” Keck said. “I remember doing an experiment when I was really young on water surface tension. I didn’t know what it was then, but I saw a picture of a sewing needle and you can balance it on water because the water tension is so high. And I recreated that through a lot of trial and error.”

He said he must have been 4 or 5 at the time.

His interest propelled him through homeschool, Hilldale schools and Northeastern State University. After graduating from NSU in May, Keck will spend the summer in Huntsville, Ala., as an intern with NASA.

Keck had intended to go to medical school, partly because he liked the “puzzles” doctors face. Then, he visited online forums with people who were going to medical school or who were doctors.

“What I heard from all of them, almost, was don’t go into this field unless you absolutely are extremely passionate and will put up with anything,” he said. “And I heard stories about people who were on call all night and were not able to go home, and they crashed because they were not able to go to sleep. And they came back to the hospital, this time as a patient. And that’s not something I wanted to do.”

He said he realized that computer science “is nothing but puzzles.”

“And the hours are a lot better.”

Meet David Keck

AGE: 24.

HOMETOWN: Muskogee.

CAREER: Computer science, software developer.

EDUCATION: Hilldale High School, 2008. To graduate from Northeastern State University in May.

FAMILY: Parents, Joe and Donna Keck; brother Alan; sisters, Mary and Rachel.

HOBBIES: Playing guitar, camping, running.

A future


Somewhere in his family’s home, David Keck has two lab coats.

He got his first when he was moving from homeschool to Hilldale.

“My mom and my dad wanted to make sure my interest in science flourished,” he said. “My mom subscribed to this thing called Mad Scientist Monthly, and it had all sorts of experiments. My mom’s friend Sondra Pippin heard about this and she got me a junior-sized lab coat that had my name embroidered in it. It said ‘David Keck’ in cursive with ‘Scientist’ underneath. I’d wear it around the house.”

Hilldale science teacher Richard Martin gave Keck his second lab coat as a high school graduation present.

“It was great,” he said. “He gave it to me right after graduation, and it was a great lab coat. It was lab gray and really sturdy and thick.

“When I got into the lab, the chemistry lab, that thing saved me a few times with some chemicals,” he said. “If it was cotton, it was really tightly stitched, almost like starched jeans. That’s great, because if you spill acid on something like nylon-type textiles, it could melt onto your skin. With this lab coat, if you spill something on it, it rolls right off of it.”

Keck said no other student in the NSU labs had a lab coat.

“I’d be walking around in my lab coat and everybody else would be wearing their nice clothes,” he said. “And a few people actually had holes in their shirts from where the acid got on them. It didn’t exactly make me cool. They were like, ‘Oh, look at the nerd.’”

Seeing the

fun in science

Keck’s interest in science grew through homeschool and Hilldale.

His home science lessons came through A Beka curriculum. He recalled watching lectures on VHS.

“If we had any questions, I’d ask my dad,” he said. “As I got older, my dad helped me with a lot of electrical projects we did.”

Hilldale teachers helped Keck’s interest grow.

“The faculty at Hilldale, starting from grade four, was just a string of excellent science teachers,” he said.

He recalled Fridays when his fourth-grade teacher Betty Blackwell would have a science quiz based on the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” show.

“She would make it fun to know science,” he said. “She would have somebody up there, and whoever got the questions would get increasing amounts of candy.”

Keck said he got up to question No. 8 once and won another time, winning two full-sized candy bars.

Keck also recalled sixth grade, when he rode a hovercraft made by a high school science teacher, George Swanson. The hovercraft featured a circular board atop big blowers used with the wiggling men seen at car dealers or events.

“He’d just strap that thing onto it, so it was blowing a bunch of air underneath,” Keck said. “That allowed that thing to become a hovercraft. The disk hovered above the ground, and you could put a sixth-grader on it.”

His high school biology teacher, Richard Martin, also had an impact.

“He and I got along really well; he would ask me to help with the science experiments he was setting up. That was tons of fun for me, just getting to play with all these science instruments and Bunsen burners.”

A dream

come true

The NASA Mars rover Curiosity piqued Keck’s curiosity about how real-time operating systems work.

Such curiosity led him to get a NASA internship this summer at Marshal Space Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“What inspired me was watching the Curiosity rover land,” Keck said. “Mars is so far away it is not possible to control a spacecraft from Earth. So what they had to do was make that entire landing sequence autonomous, with no human interaction.”

Keck applied for the internship in December by filling out information and posting a personal statement on why he wanted to be a NASA intern.

“For a long time, I was getting daily emails whenever new intern positions were posted,” he said.

Keck said his first choice was a session on real-time operating systems.

“Real-time operating systems are the systems that power your car or fighter jets or NASA’s Curiosity rover,” he said. “It is a highly scheduled operating system that makes sure vital calculations are done on a certain deadline.”

Keck also applied for 14 other internships. He received two calls and did two phone interviews.

“But those weren’t the ones I wanted the most,” he said

Finally, he got a call from Huntsville, offering the real-time operating system internship.

He said he will spend 10 weeks, starting in June, working on a spacecraft.

“I’ll be helping create the logic for how the spacecraft will operate, putting it in code,” he said. “NASA has a really good history with their software.”



“In high school, everybody says ‘I can’t wait to get out of this town, blah, blah, blah.’ I never really felt that way. We’ve got a lot of great parks. You can’t top Honor Heights. And I like that there is a lot of arts and culture here. For such a small town, it’s insane how much art and culture we have here. Things like a coffee shop are going up, and that attracts more art.”


“There’s a feeling of community from knowing everybody. You can go to the mall without knowing anyone, and then you find someone you know. Like at the coffee shop — I go there all the time, and there’s almost always somebody I know.”


“I recently saw where Muskogee was rated high on the most dangerous places to live. If we can drive that down — the violent crime or whatever the markers for dangerousness were.”


“Right now, I’m doing a tutoring and the teaching assistantship. Also, sometimes I will work at Solara Hospital as a pharmacy tech.” (He also has worked with his brother’s business, Keck Brothers Computer Services.)


“I don’t have a lot of spare time. I watch Netflix and play tennis, go running. And I like to play Ultimate Frisbee. I like to play little computer games.”


“My brother taught me pretty much all I know about computers. When I was 12 or 13, he asked if I wanted to build a computer. I really look up to him for teaching me that. He has a good ability to make things like that fun. It’s just fun to call him and talk to him about technical things.”


“Pretty much my whole life has happened in Muskogee. When I first started college — you know there’s the Freshman 15 (pounds gained in first year of college). Well I got more than 15. I was having trouble with weight, so I tried vegetarianism, I tried whatever the recommended daily allowance is. As a push to be more healthy, I decided to join a 5K race. It was the Centennial Trail-Hatbox race. I had never trained to run at all. It was really on that race — I didn’t do well — but I saw how fun it could be, so it became a big part of my life after that.”


“It’s a community of people who care about what happens in this town. There are tons of opportunities.”