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  • Merrick Pierson Smela receives 2017 Goldwater Scholar honorable mention.

    Merrick Pierson Smela receives Astronaut Scholarship

Honored on campus by Astronaut Foundation, Tuesday, Nov. 7

Chemistry Major Merrick Pierson Smela is one of two students awarded an Astronaut Scholarship for 2017-18. Rahul Parhi of Maple Grove, who is majoring in mathematics and computer science, also received an Astronaut Scholarship. Representatives of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation will be at the University of Minnesota to recognize Merrick and Ruhal, Tuesday, Nov. 7, followed by a lunch for the students and their mentors. 

Merrick is a chemistry and biochemistry major from Minneapolis. He plans to complete a doctorate in chemical biology and conduct research in metabolomics and metabolic engineering. He has taken math and chemistry courses at the University of Minnesota since his junior year in high school, when he won high honors in the U.S. Chemistry Olympiad. At that time, he assisted Professor Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos in developing sensors for an amphibious robot in the Center for Distributed Robotics. Since then, he has worked with Chemistry Professor Thomas Hoye to synthesize dibenzofuran-based fluorophores which can be employed as organic LEDs, and with Peter Intile on the effects of silver nanoparticles, which are released into aquatic ecosystems through wastewater, on the intestinal microbiome of zebrafish. Smela’s research has been supported by a Heisig-Gleysteen Fellowship at the University of Minnesota, and he was an Amgen Fellow with the Balskus Research Group at Harvard University last summer. He is a National Merit Scholar, Bentson Scholar, winner of the Chemistry Department's J. Lewis Maynard Prize, and Goldwater Scholar Honorable Mention. He is active in the American Chemical Society student chapter and Alpha Sigma Chi, where he coordinates educational outreach.

"Merrick's command of chemical principles, knowledge of an astoundingly broad range of scientific facts, awareness of foundationally important scientific developments of a both historical and modern nature, and ability to logically and objectively analyze experimental observations are highly uncommon, if not off-scale," said Professor Hoye. "I was not surprised in the least when he was selected to receive an Astronaut Scholarship."

The prestigious, competitive Astronaut Scholarship is awarded annually to outstanding sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research-oriented careers in mathematics, engineering, and the natural and applied sciences. The scholarship awards up to $10,000 for a year of undergraduate study. In addition, recipients receive mentoring and professional development support, attend the Astronaut Foundation’s Innovators Gala in Washington D.C., and participate in other Astronaut Foundation events. 

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation was started in 1985 by the Mercury 7 astronauts to encourage the study of science and engineering. Scholarships are awarded to students at 35 universities with historic ties to the U.S. space program who demonstrate leadership, imagination, and academic excellence in the study of mathematics, science and engineering. Mercury astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1949. Slayton served as NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations and piloted the docking module in the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975. Twenty-seven students from the University of Minnesota have been recognized as Astronaut Scholars, including chemistry major Sammy Shaker in 2015.