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Even at a young age, Brandon Keough ’18 is already a Renaissance man. He is graduating from SUNY Potsdam this semester with a degree in geology, minor in wilderness education and a performance certificate in viola from The Crane School of Music.

“I know it seems like a really odd combination, but to me, it’s not that odd, because it’s the combination that I’ve always had—but, it is always interesting going from one to another. One day I’m ice climbing, and then I go all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum and I’m touring with the Crane Symphony Orchestra,” Keough said.

Not only is it rare for non-music majors to pass the audition to join the Crane Symphony Orchestra, Keough also landed the principal viola role in the ensemble. This year he has been seated on stage, front and center next to Conductor Ching-Chun Lai, the director of orchestras and associate professor of music at The Crane School of Music. “Except for Brandon, there has not been a non-music major playing the principal role in CSO in recent years. What’s remarkable is that Brandon is very involved in performance opportunities. He has played and served beyond the curriculum requirements at Crane, and he seems to enjoy it a lot!” Lai said.

Dr. Shelly Tramposh, an associate professor of viola, came up with the idea for him to pursue the certificate. “I’m pretty grateful for that, because if I had not been driven by goals and deadlines to do things like adjudication and recitals, I certainly wouldn’t have progressed much. We just had our last lesson today, and I’m grateful for it! Moving on, I’m now in a position to play at the level that I want to play at for the rest of my life,” Keough said.

Keough was introduced to music at a young age, influenced by his mother’s work as a music therapist. He started playing the piano when he was just five years old, later transitioning to the viola. In high school, he was on the fence between pursuing music or another discipline; however, after traveling to California, North Carolina and Georgia for three summers in a row as part of a trail work team with the Student Conservation Association, he realized that he wanted to focus his career around the outdoors.

Keough set his sights on the geology program at SUNY Potsdam and he was immediately met with the support and guidance that he was seeking from Dr. Michael Rygel, the chair the Department of Geology. Rygel contacted Keough even before he stepped on campus his freshman year, and helped him develop a plan for the next four years. “He suggested that I take a couple upper-division electives my freshman year. It was doing things a little out of order, but what that did was open up two summers for me to do geology field work,” he said.

Because of this, Keough was able to attend the Indiana University field camp in Montana—an intensive geology field school—right after his sophomore year, and earlier than most students. The summer after his junior year, he was hired to be an associate instructor at the field camp. “I will fully admit that my colleagues knew more geology than I did—one was a Ph.D. student—but what got me that job was actually probably some geology, but then the fact that I was prepared to help people in the outdoors and take care of myself and others in the outdoors,” Keough said.

It was because of his wilderness education minor that he arrived in Montana with a skill set beyond what Keough had learned in his geology classes, and his outdoor training fit perfectly with his scientific work. “If you want to do field work, it just goes hand-in-hand and it’s extremely valuable. I think any geologist who works in the field sees the value of first aid training. In fact, Sara Bier, our structural geology professor, just took the wilderness first responder class last year because there’s so much value in it,” he said.

Through SUNY Potsdam’s wilderness education program, Keough not only gained leadership experience and learned vital wilderness first aid training, but also honed technical skills, such as ice climbing, rock climbing, outdoor safety and backcountry navigation. “We do a pretty heavy program of navigation in wilderness education, starting with a 16-day course in the Adirondacks. We’re in a place that’s pretty thick and vegetated, and learning to navigate there means that you’re pretty well suited to navigate anywhere,” he said.

“Brandon is a paradigmatic example of the value a liberal arts education can provide. I believe his success as a geology student is a direct result of his organization, excellent time management and his confident decision-making" 

Dr. Page Quinton, assistant professor of geology

When he’s not out on an adventure through the wilderness education program, Keough has been busy working on his Presidential Scholars project, where he traveled to Canada and conducted research on the sedimentology and stratigraphic cyclicity at the Clifton Formation in New Brunswick.

As part of his research, he worked closely with Rygel and Assistant Professor Dr. Page Quinton to identify patterns (referred to as cyclothems) in 300-million-year-old sedimentary rocks. “We’re interested in those patterns and what was driving those patterns. The major thought on that observation around the world is that they’re driven by sea level change,” Keough said.

While traversing a 12-kilometer-long section of beach, they studied the rock deposition layers of the impressive rock wall extending away from the shore.  

“We measured those layers, the thickness, and we took notes of all the details, the color, the type of rock (sandstone or a mudstone), and any kind of subdivisions within that,” Keough said.

“We spent all of last summer together. I can’t say enough about how great they are, and how close we are. We sit down and talk about the research like colleagues and that’s really great—the fact that both of them have given me that experience.”

In recognition of his project, Keough recently received the Frederick B. Kilmer Research Award—first place in the science category—as part of SUNY Potsdam’s annual Learning and Research Fair. “Brandon is probably one of the most promising students I’ve had the pleasure of working with. His work on the New Brunswick research project is on par with work I would expect from students at the graduate level. Brandon’s music and wilderness education training, which have taught him important skills in time management, organization and dedication, made significant contributions to his success,” said Quinton.

This fall, Keough will be pursuing a graduate degree in geology at Purdue University. He’s wasting no time this summer as he embarks on a geology research project with Dr. Kenneth Ridgway and other Purdue University graduate students. From June 22 to August 3, Keough will be working with Ridgeway’s current students in the basin analysis research group in the Alaska Range to support their field campaigns. Next summer he will head back to Alaska for his own research in the Yukon where he will examine rock formations largely just mapped at this point, but not studied in person.

With his wilderness education background, Keough was the perfect candidate for the Purdue graduate program. His three lengthy trips to Alaska over the next three summers will allow him to combine his love of geology and backcountry travel. “Alaska has a lot of unknowns, so it’s a pretty exciting place for me to start working. It’s also extremely remote. We’ll be flown into places and we’re planning on taking a boat down the Yukon for a lot of the field work,” Keough said.

He will have to take a break from playing the viola this summer, but when he’s back from the wild, he’ll pick up right where he left off.


- Article and photos by Jason Hunter