A connection through physics, basketball, and Legos: Meet the 2023 Luke Santi Award winner

account_circle By Chris Thomson
Keegan Riggs, a first-year astrophysics major at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, has won this year’s Luke Santi Memorial Award for Student Achievement.

Exploring curiosities and finding connections are two grounding principles of astrophysics. They’re also two guiding ideas that Keegan Riggs followed to become the 2023 Luke Santi Memorial Award winner.

Ever since he was young, Riggs’ curiosity has led him towards astrophysics, which he now majors in at Saint Mary’s University.

“Even as a child, I was thinking about how things formed in the universe,” said Riggs. “I was always thinking about where our planet sits.”

This curiosity led him to the discovery of Luke Santi’s story. A student at Resurrection Catholic Secondary School in Kitchener, Luke earned top marks and first-class honours in his academic studies, with a particular focus on the sciences. He also maintained an active extracurricular schedule, which included playing for the basketball team. In 2007, Santi attended the International Summer School for Young Physicists at Perimeter Institute.

The more he read about him, the more Riggs’ couldn’t believe how connected they were. It wasn’t just that the two shared several hobbies – like building Legos, chess, and basketball – but an absolute and undying love of physics.

“At a young age, we both knew we were really invested in physics. He came here [to PI], volunteered, watched lectures, and I would do the same thing online. Anything about physics I wanted to find out, I would look up and watch hours of videos about,” said Riggs. “He was really invested and knew exactly what he wanted to do. From a young age, I was the exact same way.”

Growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Riggs found great academic success at Gonzaga High School. He credited two of his science teachers for feeding his passion: Philip Sheppard for loaning him books on physics and Amanda Craig for helping to make AP Physics fun and understandable.

Much like Luke, Riggs spent lots of time volunteering, particularly at the Rainbow Riders, which provides equine therapy to kids and adults with physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities.

Riggs recently visited Perimeter Institute to accept the award. Between a tour of the building, discussions with staff, and meeting the Santi family, it was a busy day for Riggs, who flew in from Halifax the previous day. Any possible fatigue was counteracted by excitement.

“I’ve been here all day, but it doesn’t even feel like I’ve been here an hour,” he said. “It’s been so energizing with how much I’ve been learning.”

During his visit, Riggs’ curiosity guided him along, and he connected what he was learning to his own field.

“Staff were explaining how they’re creating a quantum computer and they’re using AI to do calculations. Seeing how AI is used in modern-day physics is really intriguing,” said Riggs. “With astrophysics, AI can be used for making models and predicting what those models can do.”


Back at Saint Mary’s University, Riggs is already observing asteroids, galaxy globular clusters, and planetary nebulas. It’s his research assistant position with Professor Luigi Gallo that has made him really excited about his future career.

“We’re using an x-ray space telescope to observe the inner disk of a black hole. I’m planning on seeing where that goes and deciding if I want to do my career in that,” said Riggs. “I’m definitely interested in black holes, neutron stars, galaxies forming, and cosmology.”

With help from the Luke Santi Award, the first-year student will continue to explore his curiosities and see where they lead.

About PI

Perimeter Institute is the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics. The independent Institute was founded in 1999 to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos. Research at Perimeter is motivated by the understanding that fundamental science advances human knowledge and catalyzes innovation, and that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology. Located in the Region of Waterloo, the not-for-profit Institute is a unique public-private endeavour, including the Governments of Ontario and Canada, that enables cutting-edge research, trains the next generation of scientific pioneers, and shares the power of physics through award-winning educational outreach and public engagement. 

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