Two University of Minnesota students named 2017 Astronaut Scholars

Photo of Rahul Parhi and Merrick Pierson Smela.

Two students in the University Honors Program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities have been awarded scholarships for the 2017-18 academic year by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.  The prestigious, competitive 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 will receiving mentoring and professional development support, attend the Astronaut Foundation’s Innovators Gala in Washington D.C., and have the opportunity to participate in other Astronaut Foundation events.

Rahul Parhi of Maple Grove, Minnesota is majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science and plans to complete a Ph.D. in Computer Science or Applied Mathematics with an emphasis on quantum computing and machine learning.  A participant in the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Program, he began working on the problem of fault tolerant arithmetic circuits while in high school with Professor Chris Kim.  His development of partial triple modular redundancy to achieve high fault tolerance won him recognition as a finalist in the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair and as a Seagate Rising Star.  As an undergraduate, Parhi has worked with Professor Nick Hopper to develop a private presence protocol to provide secure digital messaging, and he is creating more efficient rank aggregation algorithms for sorting data with Professor Soheil Mohajer.  His research has been supported by two Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROP) grants and has been published in the 2015 IEEE International Symposium on Circuits and Systems.  This spring he was also named a Goldwater Scholar by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

Merrick Pierson Smela, a Chemistry and Biochemistry major from Minneapolis, Minnesota, plans to complete a Ph.D. 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 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 will be an Amgen Fellow with the Balskus Research Group at Harvard University this summer.  He is a National Merit Scholar, Bentson Scholar, and winner of the J. Lewis Maynard Prize from the Chemistry Department.  He is active in the American Chemical Society student chapter and Alpha Sigma Chi, where he coordinates educational outreach.

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 B.S. 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. 

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities students who are interested in applying for the scholarship in the future may consult the Office of National and International Scholarships by visiting or by contacting Timothy Jones at

For more information on the Astronaut Scholarship, visit

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