Senior Spotlight: Maya Merrill

student working with fruit and coffee grounds next to laptop in campus kitchen
CHC senior Maya Merrill made a decision to bring environmental practices to her product design thesis. She worked with university officials to gather used fruit peels to make bioplastics that have been used in some of the campus dining halls.

Designing sustainability

Maya Merrill embraces her community, striving to make a difference everywhere she goes. 
Story by Stephanie Metzger
photos By Ilka Sankari
Clark Honors College Communications

During her last winter term, Maya Merrill participated in a UO product design course where she had the opportunity to work with the High Fives Foundation, a nonprofit that supports adaptive athletes. Merrill partnered with Jose Martinez, a triple amputee surfer who lost an arm and both legs after an accident with a bomb during his time in the military.

“Hearing his story was really inspiring,” says Merrill. “He’s gone through so many things. He told us about how he went through this rough time in his life where he lost all hope and didn’t want to live anymore, and then he found surfing.” 

As part of the class, Merrill and her fellow students became a support system for the athletes, designing things that would make their pursuits easier and give them more control over their lives. Martinez, she says, embraced her ideas.

“He was able to have more agency over his life,” she says. “It’s really inspiring, the way he carries himself and pushes forward. To be able to play a part or even just try to help in that journey is impactful. He wasn’t focused too much on the outcome or expecting a perfect solution. But he was just happy we were looking into this and researching, interviewing, and trying to come up with solutions.” 

portrait of Maya Sayuri outside a UO campus building

Maya Merrill

Major: Product design
Minors: Multimedia, science communication, and global health 
CHC thesis: “Redesigning Campus Dining at the University of Oregon”
Favorite movie: “Everything Everywhere All at Once” 
This summer, I can’t wait for: Being in Portland for the summer working at Hanna Andersson
Describe your experience at CHC: Challenging, thought provoking, and inspiring
One decision that made all the difference: Taking a gap year
Advice on the thesis project: Tailor it to your interests as much as possible. It should be a fun, intellectually stimulating process rather than something to check off the to-do list.
Advice to incoming first-year students: Take classes you wouldn’t otherwise be able to take in your major. It will ultimately enrich your overall education and perspective.
What I’ll miss most about CHC: Access to such great and knowledgeable professors who are experts in their fields.
Where I’m headed next: I’m going to Cambodia for the year. I’m doing this program called “Princeton in Asia.” I’ll be teaching arts and design classes to eighth graders there. 

Innovating through leadership

As a product design major, Merrill developed a knack for trying to make a difference in other’s lives. In her time at UO, she’s worked as a resident assistant in the dorms, making sure students are safe. She has also pushed ahead on sustainability issues to reduce the waste produced by students.

student in campus kitchen with food processor and stove
Merrill blends up and cooks down fruit peels, mixing them with gelatin to create a mushy pulp. The resulting biodegradable plastic can be an alternative to single-use containers for the dining halls. 

“I realized how much trash was produced every day,” she says. “I was thinking about my waste and how many people produce that every single day.”

Merrill, a global service minor, connects the issue of food waste to broader environmental concerns.

“It’s hard to ignore the environment and climate change because it’s impacting all of us, especially people in more vulnerable parts of the world,” she says.

Her solutions-based mindset inspired her to use her thesis to combat the amount of waste coming out of the dining halls. For her project, Merrill created bioplastic disposable containers out of orange and banana peels to replace the current plastic ones being used. 

During her three years as a resident assistant, Merrill connected with Brian Burroughs, the General Manager of PNW Dining in Unthank Hall. He provided her with the fruit peels she was using to do her project.

Burroughs recalls Merrill’s enthusiasm whenever she gave him an update on the design projects she was working on. He was excited to be involved in this project specifically because of the connection to dining services.

“The research she’s doing is really fun and exciting and a breath of fresh air,” says Burroughs. She is “thinking outside the box and looking for new opportunities to create a benefit or value for our community, our environment, and for the students.” 

The power of a supportive community

Merrill attributes a lot of her resilience and success in life to the people she surrounds herself with. “There’s those people along the way who kind of nudge you in the right direction that change the trajectory of your life because you take that one little path, and it leads down a completely different result,” she says.

student using 3d printer in design lab
At the product design labs, Merrill 3D-prints molds for her finished pieces. She wanted to find a way to make design useful and sustainable, she says. 

One of those people was a middle school teacher she met growing up in Keizer, Oregon. The teacher encouraged her to take International Baccalaureate classes at South Salem High School. The teacher thought Merrill could succeed in the more challenging setting.

“For probably about a year, I had this anxiety that I made the wrong decision,” she recalls. In that first year, Merrill felt a lot of stress and pressure to do well in a new place. At one point, she had a conversation with the program coordinator about dropping her new classes. But the coordinator persuaded her to stay.

“The academic rigor that I developed in high school through IB then made me feel like, ‘OK, I can do these things that feel out of reach, even if they feel too hard,” she explains. “I can push myself and it’s not that bad.” 

“There are those people along the way who kind of nudge you in the right direction that change the trajectory of your life because you take that one little path, and it leads down a completely different result.”   

When high school graduation came around, Merrill was still unsure of where she wanted to go to school and what to study, so she took a gap year.

Her high school French teacher set up a position for her as an assistant English teacher at a high school in Southeastern France. The teacher, a University of Oregon alum, had studied abroad when he was in school and wanted her to have that same experience.

She also became a resident assistant in her sophomore year. She did it to meet new people and be exposed to the excitement that freshmen feel when they are just starting out college. “It’s a great place for community,” she says. “There’s so many people in your vicinity that you’re bound to meet new people and make connections.”

Merrill recalls talking to the residents about their shared interests in being creative and having the opportunity to advise those who also wanted to become product design majors.

“There was one resident, who was an art and technology major and also half Japanese, so I connected with her immediately,” says Merrill. “We got to connect over art, and I thought her art skills were amazing.”

Because of Merrill’s guidance, that resident is now working at the graphic design firm where Merrill had a job a few years ago.

student in design lab at computer, working with graphic models on screen
Merrill brings technical expertise together with her drive for a better future to come up with solutions. 

After defending her thesis this fall, Merrill will shift her attention from the University of Oregon community to her students in Cambodia. That’s where she plans to travel later this year where she will be teaching eighth-grade students art and design.

During her time in the Honors College and completing a creative thesis, Merrill grew her interest in seeing the world and gained a desire to use her art and design skills to impact it.

“It was an expectation or a norm that people who did those rigorous classes want to do impactful things in the world,” she says. “You have these great opportunities and this great education; you should go out and improve the world with it.” 

See Maya's entire design portfolio on her website. 

black line drawing of a graduation cap and tassel

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