Grad finds aviating and geography on the same map

photo on Joseph Keller in the cockpit of an airplane

Joseph Keller knows how to manage complex operations and monitor delicate, changing situations. As a duty pilot manager and a captain on an MD-80 aircraft with Allegiant Air, Keller is responsible for being available by phone 24 hours a day to transmit operational information to his management and to airline safety authorities.

Asked about his work, Keller describes it in simple terms: “What we do is manage the flow of information during irregular operations for day-to-day issues,” said Keller.

While managing aviation information, Keller has also been handling a whole other set of information. He graduates from Arizona State University this December as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Medalist for the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Keller was selected as recipient of the dean’s medal for his outstanding academic achievement. He earned a 3.94 GPA and was named a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honors Society.

Professor Michael Kuby, who taught Keller in a course on transportation, said the dean’s medalist added a great deal to his class’ atmosphere. “He really enjoyed getting into discussions with the grad students in the class,” said Kuby.

Kuby also noted that Keller’s hands-on projects were outstanding.

“The undergraduates in the class research a case study on transportation history and apply the concepts they learned to it, and his group’s presentation on the origins and geographic evolution of U.S. air mail service scored the highest in the class,” said Kuby.

Accustomed to considerable operations challenges, Keller pursued his geography degree full-time while also maintaining his full-time pilot schedule. According to Keller, his aviation experience led him to a keen interest in geography.

“Geography is a natural extension of flying in my eyes, as geography plays a huge role in weather, dynamics and airport position,” Keller said. “We are constantly using maps in the aircraft,” he added.

Professor J. Duncan Shaeffer, a member of the committee that selects dean’s medalists, said that Keller showed a willingness to go above and beyond from his first days at ASU.

“I remember he came to all the freshmen week activities when he first started, even though as a transfer student he wasn't obliged to attend any of them,” said Shaeffer. “He's been a great student, and he's quite deserving of this award,” added Shaeffer.

In working toward his geography degree, Keller has been able to develop new skills in a longstanding passion.

“I have been interested in aviation all my life. I got my private pilot certificate at the age of 17 and never looked back,” said Keller.

He also holds an associate's degree in aviation technology, and previously attended Embry Riddle Aviation University and the San Juan College of New Mexico.

Keller said that through piloting, he has honed planning, management, finance and public relations skills. He decided that a geography degree would develop further skills and open up even wider possibilities.

Despite his high-pressure career and his considerable academic load, Keller has maintained a sense of humor.

“You never have too much fuel, unless you’re on fire,” Keller responded to a question about lessons learned from aviation – before quickly adding, “Just kidding,” and offering serious insights about how aviation and geographical sciences can work together.

Moving forward with his degree, Keller said his aviation background and his geography credential will complement each other.

“It's nice to know where you’re at as you’re flying along,” said Keller.

Keller plans to continue his work as a pilot. At ASU, he also became interested in European history and geography, and hopes to pursue a master's in that area in the future.

The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Wynne Mancini,
School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning