Nate Merrill

About Nate Merrill


Nate Merrill


Braymer, Joseph J.; Merrill, Nathan M.; Lim, Mi Hee. Characterization of pyridinylimine and pyridinylmethylamine derivatives and their corresponding metal complexese. Inorg. Chim. Acta. 2012; 380:261-268.

Cooper, Jason; Maupin, Kevin; Merrill, Nathan. Origins of cancer symposium 2015: posttranslational modifications and cancer. Genes & Cancer. 2015; 6:7-8.


How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?

Normally the mitochondria are the power plants for our cells, making the energy for our cells to function. When our cells are stressed and the mitochondria can’t do their job the cells turn to a recycling program that we call autophagy. Recycling their own components, cells can generate building blocks and energy to fuel the cell. While this is a normal process needed for survival, cancer cells can use this process to survive harsh conditions. My project focuses on a single component in the autophagy process. We want to find out how this one small piece affects the process of autophagy and how we could use this to target cancer.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

I never want my level of education to be a limiting factor or an excuse for what I can achieve. With a PhD I can, to a certain extent, control my own destiny and see how far my drive and ambition will take me.

What do you want to do with your degree?

I want to use my degree to continue to work in human health. It is a great feeling knowing that the work you do is able to help people today and improve the world for future generations.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?

Graduating from the University of Michigan in the winter gave me half a year to work before grad school. This helped to assure me that graduate school was the path for me.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?

As an undergraduate I studied Chemistry in the context of neurodegenerative disease before changing to Biology in the context of cancer in graduate school. This switch helped me appreciate the multidisciplinary nature of science. It also helped me realize my adaptability and assured me that wherever I end up after graduate school, I will be successful.

Do you think there is any value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?

The ability to collaborate and approach problems in unique ways is incredibly important for success. My lab currently has a grant that aims to study autophagy using mathematical modeling. Collaborations like this happen because you network outside your field and think outside the box.

How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?

I think that earning THIS advanced degree will absolutely change my role in society. During our first week at the institute we toured the children’s hospital and met several children battling cancer. One girl, who has since lost her battle, was there giving out flowers to kids and visitors of the hospital. That flower is sitting at my desk today. If that is not motivation to want to make a difference for people in the future, I don’t know what is.

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?

Working throughout undergrad really helped me come into grad school ready to work hard. The first year of classes really helps you to develop the strategies needed to succeed. Grad school is not necessarily about just learning a lot of information, but more about learning how to find what you need. When you are working in the future there will not always be a text book to point you in the right direction. You need to know where to turn for reliable information and how to process it. These skills are really strengthened in the first years of grad school.

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

Working out is definitely my preferred stress-reducer. Being able to take that stress and turn it into something positive is a great feeling.

What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?

Publishing as an undergrad really put me into position to get into graduate school and really set me up for where I am today. And this was no small challenge since I was working on getting data and writing all while taking 17 credits and working 30 hours a week.

Are you involved in other community activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?

Once or twice a year I try to go out and talk at a local middle school about science. Whether it is talking about life as a scientist or teaching a lesson, it is great to get out and see the enthusiasm of these young kids for science. It is a good reminder that science is fun.

Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?

We spend 17+ years in school where we are tested on what we know. What are the known facts that answer the question? In graduate school most questions do not have a black or white answer. So how can we find out what we need to know from known facts to address this gap in knowledge? The biggest change is this change in thinking that we have had hardwired for most of our lives.

If you were asked to put something in a time capsule for each year you have been in the program and this capsule would not be opened for 25 years, what would you contribute?

Year 1: A copy of Alberts’s Molecular Biology of the Cell; a great place to find known knowledge when you start to address questions.

Year 2: A lab coat; you get your first bulk of time in the lab to jump into your project.

Year 3: Running shoes; you just finished your comprehensive exams. Experiments are probably not going to greatest. This is normal. Take a deep breath and find a release.

Year 4: A tin of coffee; experiments should be starting to work so ride that momentum and work as hard as you can.  

If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?

A week before accepting a spot in graduate school I was offered a job working for the city of Detroit in their water department. So I would probably have taken that job. I think I made the right decision!

Is there anything else you would like us to know about your doctoral education experience?

Like many things in life, in graduate school you get out what you put in. You could probably come in every day and check the boxes and leave with a degree, but where is the fun in that? Shape your experience to fit you and get out everything you can.