CSE chemistry student wins Churchill Scholarship to study at Cambridge

Student is fourth student in four years to receive prestigious scholarship is worth about $60,000

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (02/13/2018) — Merrick Pierson Smela, a senior majoring in chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, has been named a Churchill Scholar by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States.

The scholarship, worth roughly $60,000, will allow Pierson Smela to spend the 2018-19 academic year at Churchill College of the University of Cambridge, where he plans to complete an M.Phil in biological science. Working with Professor Azim Surani, director of germline and epigenetics research at the Gurdon Institute for developmental biology, he will conduct research on in vitro oogenesis.

Churchill Scholarships are awarded to only 15 seniors nationwide majoring in the sciences, engineering and mathematics at colleges and universities in the United States, making them one of the most selective and prestigious post-graduate scholarships. Pierson Smela is the fourth University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering student in four years to be awarded a Churchill Scholarship, following Max Shinn (math and neuroscience), Sammy Shaker (chemistry), and Anthony Tabet (chemical engineering).

The son of Cordelia Pierson and Stephen Pierson Smela of Minneapolis, he began to teach himself chemistry in seventh grade with a makeshift home lab and a college chemistry textbook. He learned enough to score a 5 on the AP chemistry exam and never looked back. As a PSEO student at the University of Minnesota he took organic chemistry and advanced math courses, and he joined the research group of Professor Thomas Hoye as a first-year Chemistry major in the College of Science and Engineering. With Professor Hoye he has synthesized and characterized novel flourophores, which he has patented for use in organic LEDs.

When his research interests began to shift to biomedical applications of chemistry, Pierson Smela decided to complete a second degree in the College of Biological Sciences with a major in biochemistry. Selection as an Amgen Scholar allowed him to develop these interests at Harvard last summer, where he worked with Professor Emily Balskus to identify compounds that inhibit the conversion of choline into trymethylamine by intestinal bacteria. At Cambridge he will bring these experiences and interests to bear on problems in stem-cell biology that have great potential for improving human health.

Pierson Smela’s studies at the University of Minnesota have been supported by scholarships from the Bentson Family, Cyrus and Mary Field, and a Gold Scholarship from the University. He was also selected as the recipient of the $10,000 Astronaut Scholarship in 2017 by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

On campus, Pierson Smela is a member of the University Honors Program and has been a leader in the ΑΧΣ professional fraternity, the Synthetic Biology Society, and the American Chemical Society. Last spring he organized an event that brought 200 Boy Scouts to campus for workshops in five areas of science, and he works part-time launching fireworks for Hollywood Pyrotechnics.

The Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States was founded in 1959 to offer American students of exceptional ability and achievement in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics the opportunity to pursue graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. Eight graduates of the University of Minnesota have previously been named Churchill Scholars.

Students at the University of Minnesota who are interested in the Churchill Scholarship or other major competitive awards to fund graduate or undergraduate study, in the United States or abroad, should contact Timothy Jones in the Office of National and International Scholarships at