May 11, 2022
University of Missouri graduate Anna Merkel is headed to the aerospace engineering industry where she hopes to help further space exploration. But even though she’s shooting for the stars, Merkel stressed her feet will remain firmly grounded on planet Earth.
“Aerospace is a cool subject, but what really interests me is how we can use space exploration not only to learn more about the universe as a whole but also our planet,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in how sending satellites to space or humans to the moon relates back to improving life here. Space exploration has led to so many improvements on Earth, and that’s the really cool part.”
Merkel has always had her head in the clouds with a natural interest in stargazing and rockets. Growing up in Gladstone, Missouri, books and movies about space ignited her curiosity.
In middle and high school, space camps at the Cosmosphere — a Space Museum in Hutchinson, Kansas — and at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, fueled her ambition.
And at Mizzou, numerous opportunities to pair a mechanical engineering education with hands-on experiences propelled her skills and abilities.
During her freshman year, Merkel conducted undergraduate research around drones, helped start the MU Student Astronomical Society and was a Stamps Scholar in the Honors College — for which she’s giving a commencement speech this weekend.
Later in her college career, Merkel conducted research in cryogenics and helped reverse-engineer data back into mathematical equations. She also got involved in the Society of Women Engineers, Mizzou Space Program and Alpha Omega Epsilon, the engineering sorority.
Her classes played a key role in sustaining her passion, too, she said, by showing how foundational concepts apply in the real world. Merkel credits Professor Craig Kluever’s flight mechanics and propulsion courses for affirming her interest in aerospace engineering. And a tutorial series in the MU Honors College ensured a well-rounded education, as she learned about a range of topics, such as the history of barbeque and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
“There are so many great opportunities at Mizzou to do basically whatever you want to do, whether you want to explore different subjects or join a bunch of clubs,” Merkel said. “There’s no end to the stuff you can do on this campus.”
Out of this world
Among her most impactful experiences as a Tiger were an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and an eight-month co-op at Sierra Nevada Corporation.
At NASA, Merkel was part of a team that investigated extraterrestrial simulants. Essentially, the group identified materials on Earth that share similar properties with Mars and moon rocks in order to test tools and equipment. The work allows scientists to perfect methods and techniques before having to do them in more challenging, zero-gravity environments.
Then, in 2020, she spent eight months working in a clean room at Sierra Nevada’s Madison, Wisconsin, facility. There, she tested the cleanliness of aerospace parts, ensuring they were free of residues or particles. That experience showed her first-hand just how much work goes on behind the scenes to get machines to fly through the universe.
While Merkel enjoys the technical, hands-on work of aerospace engineering, she said her ideal career would involve helping people and finding sustainable solutions to protect the Earth’s resources.
“It’s important to me to have more of a grounded mindset,” she said. “I want to help the environment, help the Earth and help people. Those are my core tenets. Ideally, I will have a career that helps people while also doing cool things — space exploration not only for the sake of exploring space but for the sake of the people back here who made it possible.”
And she’s grateful to Mizzou for making her future possible.
“Thanks to the organizations I was a part of at Mizzou, I was able to get great professional and networking experience,” she said. “Attending the Society of Women Engineers national conference several times has allowed me to get internships and jobs in my field, connections I would not have made otherwise.”
Read about more 2022 Mizzou graduates here.