Computer engineering, mathematics major named astronaut scholar

Amanda Merkley, computer engineering, CSU.
Curt Brown, an astronaut who piloted six space shuttles, presents Amanda Merkley with the Astronaut Foundation Scholarship at a gala in Washington, D.C.

Colorado State University senior Amanda Merkley has received the prestigious astronaut scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

Merkley, who is double majoring in computer engineering and mathematics, was one of 52 students across the nation selected for the 2019 Class of Astronaut Scholars, the Innovators of Tomorrow.

“We are proud of Amanda for being honored as one of the top undergraduate scholars in STEM,” said Anura Jayasumana, professor of electrical and computer engineering at CSU. “She has a rich blend of intelligence, creativity, passion and discipline. I would rank her among the top 1% of the students I have known in my 30+ years at CSU.”

In addition to a $10,000 scholarship award, Merkley will receive lifelong mentoring and professional development opportunities through the Foundation’s network of astronauts, C-suite level executives and industry leaders.

Merkley will be recognized by the university and the astronaut foundation Thursday, September 26, at a reception at the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering. The event is free and open to the campus community starting at 4:30 p.m. in the Scott Bioengineering Building Atrium.

Making sense of the world through
math and engineering

Merkley has always been fascinated by the power of mathematics. “Math provides a structured framework that enables a deeper understanding of the world,” said Merkley, also a recipient of this year’s Goldwater Scholarship.

That fascination deepened when Merkley began applying computing and mathematics to engineering challenges – it was the spark that ignited her interest in electrical and computer engineering research. “You can do so much in ECE, you can’t even fathom,” said Merkley.

This summer, Merkley was selected for the MIT Research Program in Brain and Cognitive Neuroscience funded by the National Science Foundation.

“I never would have imagined doing research involving the brain,” said Merkley.

Merkley used her knowledge of computer engineering and mathematics to analyze enormous amounts of data collected through sophisticated neuroscience tools to help understand the brain’s response to object permanence – the idea that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be perceived.

“I think there are a lot of analogies that can be made between computers and the brain … not to say they are the same, but I think we can learn a lot from the brain to advance current technologies,” said Merkley.

Merkley transferred to CSU in 2017 from Utah State University, where she was an undergraduate research fellow. Since joining the ECE department, she has been researching statistical methods in the manufacturing process of carbon nanotube circuits, which can be used as a new technology in computer chips. She also investigated research methods in computational geometry in the Department of Mathematics through the NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Merkley recently embarked on her capstone senior design project, exploring on-device machine learning for smartphones.

Beyond her research interests, Merkley has a passion for learning new languages. “I can see parallels of language in all layers of computer design,” said Merkley. While living abroad for four years, she learned Romanian, French and Russian. She also took a semester of Arabic and is relearning Mandarin Chinese.

After graduating with her bachelor’s next spring, Merkley plans to pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

About the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation

Commemorating the legacy of America’s pioneering astronauts, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation recognizes scholars in science, technology, engineering and mathematics who show initiative, creativity and excellence in their chosen field. In 2017, Colorado State University joined 35 other top research universities nationwide, including MIT and Georgia Tech, as a participant in the ASF merit-based scholarship program.

For more information about the ASF award, including nomination and submission guidelines, contact Lisa Dysleski, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Natural Sciences.

CSU will host an information session for sophomores and juniors interested in the Goldwater and Astronaut Scholarships Tuesday, October 8, at 5:00 p.m. in LSC 304.