ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hers was a family that spent vacations backpacking, with parents who fostered an environment of curiosity and learning and siblings who spent summer days playing on the irrigation ditches in the Corrales bosque.
Those family roots launched Elizabeth (Liz) Kistin Keller, 36, on a path that led her to a stellar academic and professional career. It drew upon her experience of New Mexico’s blend of cultures and the vital role water plays in this arid land. It was a path that took her the length and breadth of Latin America, to the deserts of southern Africa and the lush landscape of southeast Asia.
She brought that wealth of experience to her position at Sandia National Laboratories where she is a principal systems analyst working on solving multifaceted problems that have local and international impact.
As of Dec. 1, when her husband Tim Keller became the city’s mayor, Kistin Keller took on an additional role as Albuquerque’s first lady. How might she bring that breadth of knowledge to bear as the mayor’s wife?
“We’re still figuring out what that might look like. With my job and my career I am a complex systems analyst and a bridge builder. This is my professional training and my passion,” she said.
(Kistin Keller met for a Journal interview just before Thanksgiving at a crowded Downtown cafe she often frequents. Many of the young patrons greeted her warmly with congratulations and hugs.)
Work as a team
Albuquerque, Kistin Keller said, is facing many complex problems and she ventured there could be some opportunities for her to be directly involved. She is no stranger to politics. In 2008, she was a field organizer in Sandoval County for the Obama campaign and later worked on Martin Heinrich’s 2010 run for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
She met Tim Keller, 40, when he was already a state senator. They married in 2011 and she worked with him on his 2012 re-election campaign and his successful 2014 run for the state auditor’s position.
They always worked as a team, she said, including making the tough choice for him to enter the mayor’s race.
“It is always a big decision,” she said, “It has a huge impact on the family.” But as young adults who both grew up here, they felt it was a way of giving back to their community.
“It was worth taking a shot on having an opportunity to do something real and something meaningful for our home town,” she said.
She was grateful for a supportive network of family and friends as the campaign wore on. Although Tim Keller was a top vote getter in the multi-candidate race on election day in October, he didn’t secure the 50 percent needed for an outright win. He and Dan Lewis had to compete in a runoff election Nov. 14. Campaign rhetoric and ads grew increasingly negative.
“I am so glad that someone like Tim is willing to weather that storm to run for office. But I think it turns off other good candidates because it is a brutal process on families,” Kistin Keller said.
The couple has two children, Maya, 4, and Jack, 2. Kistin Keller said she was glad the children are so young they didn’t watch the TV ads.
Now that her husband is mayor, Kistin Keller said they share hopes for making a positive impact on Albuquerque’s future.
“We always felt pretty strongly as a team that this is an important way to step up for our city. Part of that is me being able to support him in that role and maintain my own career,” she said.
Norton (Norty) Kalishman, a family friend who has known her since early childhood, said she will juggle the disparate roles with confidence.
“She’ll weave a tapestry for all those roles she plays in life,” Kalishman said. “She’s the daughter, the wife, mother, the professional social scientist and she will be first lady. She will find a way for all those things to be woven together.”
Kistin Keller credits her father, gastroenterologist Dr. Martin Kistin, and mother, nurse Sidney Kistin, with providing a supportive environment, a love of the outdoors and a thirst for learning in herself, her two older sisters and younger brother.
“Both of my parents are a tremendous example of constant curiosity and learning in the way they’ve approached their own careers and civic engagement,”she said. “That was really folded into our lives as kids on a constant basis.”
She attended Albuquerque Academy, where her former English teacher Stephanie Lipkowitz said she was an outstanding student who showed great generosity of spirit.
“I think we are unbelievably fortunate to get someone as smart and rooted in Albuquerque as Liz and Tim are. I think we are blessed that they are going to stay here and help our city with intelligence and creativity,” Lipkowitz said.
Kistin Keller landed the highly competitive Morehead-Cain scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where she earned a bachelor’s in political science and Latin American studies. The full-ride scholarship also covered four summers of travel. She spent those summers backpacking on the Snake and Salmon rivers in Idaho, working with Nicaraguan refugees and immigrants in Costa Rica and studying with the School for International Training in Nicaragua and Cuba.
The final summer was split between a research project on water systems in Ecuador and retracing parts of Che Guevara’s 1950s motorcycle journey around South America. Kistin Keller had to promise her parents she wouldn’t be traveling by motorcycle.
“There were a lot of buses,” she said.
Interest in water
That summer was seminal in two ways. It awakened a passion for looking at how political, social, technological and physical systems can intersect around managing water resources. And it was during one of the long bus rides that she decided to apply for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England.
At 22, she was one of 32 selected out of nearly 1,000 applicants. She earned master’s and doctorate degrees in International Development Studies from Oxford, but much of her time was spent away from the rainy British climate doing research on water resource management in southern Africa.
After Oxford, she returned to North Carolina and worked for the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy, a job that involved studying river basins in southeast Asia.
All the travel sparked a deep appreciation for what growing up in New Mexico meant to her.
“It feels like an extreme luxury to have lived and worked in all these places and to be able to bring some of those lessons back to the place I grew up in,” she said.
Returning to Albuquerque, she worked as a state development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and taught as an adjunct professor in the water resources master’s program at the University of New Mexico.
She worked under Bruce Thomson, now professor emeritus and research professor in UNM’s civil engineering department.
“She was just great. She’s knowledgeable, hardworking and extremely bright,” Thomson said. He said Kistin Keller has an engaging personality and “the ability to navigate difficult situations with diplomacy and good will.”
Her position at Sandia Labs has given her the opportunity to use her vast experience to work on issues that have international and local impact. The group she works with analyzes things like what the future of global security might look like in 20 years, how that shapes current thinking and what tools could be used to enable institutions to adapt to change.
She is also still involved with UNM as an adjunct professor in the geography and environmental studies department.
Thomson said Kistin Keller’s demonstrated ability to build bridges between different sides on an issue will stand her in good stead in her new role.
“If you’re going to be in public life, you can’t hold grudges. You’ve got to be able to accept other peoples’ opinions, views and perspectives — and she can do that,” Thomson said.