Grad Spotlight: Thomas Keene

Thomas is a third-year student in the dual Ph.D. program in Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE) and Economics.

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What is your favorite thing about the AFRE department?  
My favorite part of the department has been the opportunity to work with my advisor. Through the projects we are currently working on, I have been able to work closely with researchers and policymakers from across the country on issues related to broadband availability and accessibility for rural and tribal communities in the United States. Through these connections, I have not only deepened my understanding of research techniques and the topic itself, but have seen the impact the group’s research has on policymaking and on the communities themselves. It is extremely rewarding to know that I may have contributed to making other people’s lives better, not just through my research but also through giving people the ability to share their experiences and concerns with researchers determined to listen and help.  

If you could go back in time and give any advice to yourself as a first-year AFRE student, what would it be?  
If I were to go back in time and give myself advice, it would be to remember to enjoy the experience even when times are tough. It is easy to let self-confidence shrink and to let anxiety creep in, especially in the first year where you are required to prove yourself through the qualifying exams. However, it is okay to laugh and smile through it all! You can chuckle when your professor uses a pun in the middle of a lecture; when you scroll through an article about COVID and read every “asymptomatic” as “asymptotic;” or when someone’s cat decides to sit on their computer during a Zoom class. Being able to find humor even when you are most anxious can really help you through a very demanding, and honestly scary, time in your career. 

What is one thing that you are looking forward to doing now that you are back on campus?  
I am really looking forward to the spontaneous class-wide/cohort-wide lunches and dinners we had prior to lockdown. We used to celebrate birthdays or the completion of a difficult lecture over sushi or BBQ literally minutes after a class ended. Conversations and interactions during those meals are some of my favorite memories of my time in AFRE, and I can’t wait to connect in-person with friends both old and new. 

What is a saying or expression that you probably say too much? 
I have many expressions I say too much. Some of my friends in high school and college say I don’t speak English, but instead I speak Thomas. I can’t think of any recent expressions, but I used to say “It’s just one of those days” so much that my bandmates in my old jazz band forced me to write a ballad named after the expression. We played it on a couple gigs as an inside joke.  

If you could have one song play every time you entered a room, what would it be, and why? 
A lot come to mind, but I think it would be “Dance of the Coachmen and Grooms” by Igor Stravinsky in his ballet Petrushka. I have no idea why I’m obsessed with the piece, but I know that if I ever see the ballet, I’ll be headbanging in the seats. 

What thoughts instantly make you feel more relaxed? 
I feel more relaxed when I think of all the communities I am a part of back in Chicago. Sometimes when I am especially worried about coursework or research, I think of all the students I used to teach karate to or all the people I used to play in bands with. Thinking about those people and the good times we had together definitely helps me put into perspective who I am and my value as a person outside of a grade or a deadline. 

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