Vivian Merk, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering
By Yaffi Spodek
Can you describe your career path and how you came to FAU?
I hold a B.Sc. and M.Sc. degree in Chemistry from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. I earned a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering in the field of building materials from ETH Zurich in Switzerland. While I was doing my Swiss NSF postdoctoral fellowship in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, I applied for faculty positions at US institutions. I joined FAU one year ago, in Fall 2019.
What are your areas of research expertise?
My research focuses on improving our understanding of biological crystal growth in complex organic matrices. I am further interested in devising lightweight and mechanically robust biocomposites, that have the potential to compete with commercial plastics, but are more environmentally sustainable. An integral part of my research effort is to develop quantitative approaches to study structure, chemical composition, and macroscopic properties of mineralized tissues. For this, I use a variety of advanced characterization methods, such as Raman spectroscopy, Electron Microscopy, Atomic Force Microscopy, and synchrotron-based X-ray techniques. My work entails a multidisciplinary approach, combining chemistry, physics, biology, and materials science, ranging from a fundamental understanding of biological engineering concepts to real-world applications of bioinspired composites.
What achievements in your career are you most proud of?
I hold a patent for the technology “Mineralized wood materials and methods providing mineralized wood materials,” which was among the top five patent applications at ETH Zurich in 2014. The patented technology encompasses novel protocols for the chemical modification of wood with inorganic minerals. We demonstrated that calcium carbonate can be used as an effective and eco-friendly fire retardant for wood, which is highly promising for applications in construction, the refurbishment of old buildings, furniture, aircraft, railway or automobile interior design. In 2017, I received the prestigious ETH medal for my doctoral thesis. A part of my postdoctoral research was awarded with a Microscopy & Microanalysis Postdoctoral Scholar Award 2019 from the Microscopy Society of America.
Who or what inspired you to enter the field of engineering and computer science?
I thoroughly enjoy problem solving and creative thinking. I have been a part of several industry-sponsored projects, which have taught me the integral role of technology transfer in advancing benefits to society, and the challenges involved with upscaling from the laboratory to an industrial pilot scale.
What has been your greatest challenge?
For my postdoctoral research, I departed the field of research I carried out during my PhD, the bio-inspired mineralization of wood materials, to take an in-depth look at the biomineralization in Acantharia, marine planktonic organisms that build elaborate skeletons from strontium sulfate mineral. To conduct my research, I had to learn about marine biology and acquire new experimental skillsets.
What do you find most rewarding in your professional career?
I greatly enjoy working in an intellectually stimulating environment and pursuing my passions. Moreover, I hope to make a positive impact on people's life through teaching and research.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in academia vs. industry or government?
A career in academia gives me the opportunity to follow my curiosity and implement my ideas in a way that would not be possible in industry. In contrast to research and technological development undertaken by corporations, our primary goal is to create and share knowledge.
As you reflect back on your career, what advice would you give to women who are interested in entering the field?
My advice is to follow your curiosity. Allow yourself to try new things, as this will help you find out what intrigues you most. The field of science and engineering provides plenty of opportunities for having a positive impact on people's lives.
Vivian Merk holds a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Chemistry from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. She earned a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering in the field of building materials from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and later completed her Swiss NSF postdoctoral fellowship in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. In 2019, she joined FAU, where she holds a dual appointment in the Department of Ocean & Mechanical Engineering at the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. She has taught a variety of classes, including Inorganic Chemistry, Nanotechnology, Corrosion I, and Materials Chemistry.