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Student Spotlight: Aeriel Murphy

Aeriel Murphy

Aeriel Murphy, Ph.D. Candidate, Materials Science and Engineering, Rackham Merit Fellowship

Aeriel Murphy was the kid doing science fair projects even when there wasn’t a science fair. Moving to a very rural Alabama community when she started high school, she could easily have gotten lost. Her family, most of whom are educators, had raised her to recognize opportunity, and that’s what happened when a teacher noticed her aptitude for math and science and told her about the science fair. Above and beyond that experience, Aeriel started doing research in high school, working with a professor at the University of Alabama for three years before studying there. She comments, “Through that opportunity I had so many others. I made friends with his grad students and they were great mentors for me. It is amazing now to think that I had graduate students as mentors in high school.”

A McNair Scholar at the University of Alabama, Aeriel read about U-M’s SROP in an e-mail. With an aunt in the area, she thought it would be a good summer experience but had never considered U-M as an option for graduate school. Then she came to SROP. She says, “Being from the South, family is extremely important to me, and here it felt like having a family. People here were very welcoming, really like a family unit at day one. I feel like I have a family at Rackham and now my department feels like family as well.”

After undergrad, she was unsure whether to continue her education or begin working. She started working as an engineer in the meantime, but that didn’t last long. “My boss had a Ph.D. and said I was wasting my talents. Go to grad school, he said. U-M is a great place. This is probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”

A 4th year doctoral candidate in Material Science and Engineering, Aeriel researches recrystallization of magnesium alloys. She explains, “They are important because they are light and have broad application in auto and aerospace industries. A 6-8% reduction in the weight of a car is 10-15% reduction in energy consumption. We need to study these alloys. It’s all about the properties: how do you prevent the metal from shattering, how does the behavior of metals change under certain conditions like pressure, strain, temperature. When you bend metal, that is deformation and the properties change, creating many dislocations. If you heat a ring in a furnace, those dislocations disappear, that’s recrystallization, now the ring is not going to shatter. But if you keep heating it, the grains would grow and change, becoming softer and too large. We need to know if properties of a car door are going to change and how. When are they going to recrystallize and at what temperature are they going to grow. We need to know how many cycles it will take for it to fail. We need to know these issues for a variety of metal alloys for structural applications.”

Aeriel works with different magnesium alloys, adding rare earth elements to magnesium because they have been known to stabilize the microstructure and be compatible at higher temperatures. She explains, “The issue with magnesium is that it can’t be used in aerospace applications, but when you use additional rare earth elements you stabilize the microstructure for use at high elevations and temperatures.”

“I hate it when my mom is right, but she’s always right,” Aeriel laughs when saying she never had any interest in being a professor but now finds that is her primary career focus. “I teach in the Summer Engineering Academy and I love it. I keep thinking it’s something I could be good at. I always thought I would go right into industry, but when my faculty advisor asked me what my top four interests are I told him mentorship, teaching, travel, and research. He said that pretty much sums up his job.” She’s got a plan for how to get there, pursuing relationships with faculty members at her dream schools in the University of California system.

Aeriel always seems to have the next step figured out. She says, “I owe a lot of my ability to plan to my parents, especially my mom, a high school counselor. My parents say to always have a plan, and I have been thinking about what I want to do for the rest of my life since middle school.”

Much of her work outside the classroom reflects her interest in providing opportunity and exposure to others: “I’m extremely passionate about increasing the number of women in science and engineering, especially minority women. I know what it is like to be minority, my high school was 80/20, and the 20% was strongly Native American. I know it is easy to be swept under the rug and out of the loop, but that was not a problem for me because of my family full of educators, but I could see it in others. Some kids didn’t have the resources but they were so smart.”

Knowing that, she does so much to engage others. She is the director of the Detroit Precollege Engineering Program for youth in the area to explore engineering over five Saturdays for five weeks in the summer. It is a holistic program, studying all aspects of engineering by using a case study; this year’s project was the work involved in bringing a metro system to Detroit. 

Now, when she goes home to Alabama to visit, she builds in time to host engineering workshops at local schools. “I contact a superintendent and tell them I have money for food and I have all the supplies, I just need girls and a classroom. I get funding from U-M, and I love teaching these robotics workshops, just to see their faces light up. When these girls see African American women in their towns, they see nurses and teachers. They don’t know anyone who is an engineer. This provides great exposure.

Aeriel is also involved in recruiting efforts for grad students in the College of Engineering, attending conferences and participating in panel discussions when she can.

She is a National Science Foundation fellow, a Rackham Merit Fellow, and serves on Rackham’s multicultural leadership board.

When she gets a chance to relax, you’ll often find Aeriel at the movies. She frequents the State and Michigan Theatres often, trying not to miss anything on the marquee. She’s often also outdoors, something instilled in her since she spent a lot of time as a child on her grandparent’s farm in Alabama. Her version of outside is a bit different than farm life, however, “I love kayaking and running drills.” Those activities flow into her love of food: “I’m such a foodie, like my dad. When he comes here, we love to cook, so we love to eat and explore restaurants in town.”