Karlheinz Merkle to receive 2015 Marsh O'Neill Award

Merkle, who supervises the Physics Machine Shop, has won the annual prize given to staff members who have made outstanding contributions to Stanford's research mission.

Karlheinz Merkle

Karlheinz Merkle, this year’s winner of the Marsh O’Neill Award, supervises the Physics Machine Shop. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

One short sentence, tucked among the many testimonials for Karlheinz Merkle, winner of the 2015 Marsh O’Neill Award, nicely sums up his impact on experimental research at Stanford: “He made my research idea come true.”

Merkle, who has been the supervisor of the Physics Machine Shop since 1998, is the winner of this year’s Marsh O’Neill Award for Exceptional and Enduring Support of Stanford University’s Research Enterprise.

In the shop, located in the Varian Physics Building, Merkle and three laboratory machinists design and fabricate – and modify – highly specialized components essential to state-of-the-art research in the physical sciences and engineering. As members of the last full-service machine shop on campus, their services are in demand throughout the research community.

Merkle will be honored at a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 16, in the Gold Room of the Faculty Club. Members of the Stanford community who would like to attend should RSVP to Cheryl Weissbart in the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Research, cherylw1@stanford.edu.

The award was established in honor of Marshall D. O’Neill, who worked at Stanford from 1952 to 1990, when he retired as associate director of the W.W. Hansen Laboratories. He was the first recipient of the award.

Professors, graduate students and staff researchers who nominated Merkle for the award said he plays many roles in the shop.

One person described Merkle as “an entrepreneur who deals with technical issues and personnel while optimizing business in the shop, which is expected to break even.” Others applauded his talents as an instrument designer, engineer, machinist, leader and teacher. They also praised his people skills, including his patience and enthusiasm.

Merkle was born in Pforzheim, a city in southwestern Germany known as the “gate to the Black Forest,” and for its jewelry and watchmaking industry. He became a tool-and-die maker – a machinist who makes tools used in manufacturing processes.

Merkle, who left Germany at 24, lived in New Zealand for two years before coming to the United States. In late 1983, he began working at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. In 1989, he moved to the Physics Machine Shop, where he worked under Wolfgang Jung, who received the Marsh O’Neill Award in 1991.

In a recent interview, Merkle credited teamwork for the shop’s success. “The success of the shop is a team effort,” he said.

Merkle said the shop staff enjoys working with graduate students.

“It’s always a sad moment when they leave,” he said. “We get really close to them during the six years they’re here working on their PhD.”

Faculty, students praise Merkle

Physics Professor Peter Michelson, chair of the Physics Department, said Merkle meets the often-demanding research needs of the department creatively, efficiently and cheerfully.

“He excels in his ability to interface with faculty and students, and to solve problems, meet deadlines and stay within budget,” Michelson said.

“Karlheinz can be counted on to be helpful, personable and to come up with creative and effective solutions. His expertise, guidance, professionalism and ability to perform specialized machining have been crucial to the success of many projects. His high level of service has included the design and construction of very effective and innovative laboratory equipment. He is a jewel!”

Giorgio Gratta, a professor of physics, said that over the last 17 years Merkle has transformed the Physics Machine Shop from a traditional facility with a few manual machines to a modern shop that does most of its work on computerized equipment.

“Karlheinz found innovative ways to raise resources and strike deals with suppliers, allowing him to acquire very substantial new equipment, increasing the complexity of the parts that the shop can handle, as well as their efficiency,” Gratta said. “Essential to these accomplishments are his technical competence, hard work and people skills.”

Gratta said that in many cases, researchers do not give Merkle full shop drawings of the research equipment they need, but provide only sketches or, sometimes, just an idea.

“A session in his office turns this idea into a design that can be fabricated,” Gratta said. “His talent as an instrument designer is essential in making the shop a useful tool for scientific research. In fact, when my students design parts, my first recommendation is to ‘go talk to Karlheinz.’ He has very impressive technical knowledge, endless enthusiasm, patience and a real commitment to his job as facilitator of the science we do.”

Contributed to thesis research

Professor Paul McIntyre, chair of the Materials Science & Engineering Department, said Merkle’s contributions to the doctoral thesis research of several generations of Stanford doctoral students are particularly noteworthy.

“There can be few staff members who have had a greater and broader cumulative impact on experimental research at this university,” McIntyre said.

One of those students was Lucas Berla, who received a doctorate in materials science and engineering at Stanford in 2014, and is currently working at an engineering and scientific consulting firm based in Silicon Valley.

“Karlheinz contributed a great deal to my thesis research,” Berla said. “He helped with design and led fabrication of most of the components of our fluid cell nano-indentation setup. He also constructed fixtures we later used to machine and prepare all the substrates used in our LiSi nano-indentation work. I’d be thrilled if he were to be recognized for his work, as he is more than deserving. Overall, Karlheinz was one of my favorite people to interact and work with during my time at Stanford.”

Blas Cabrera, a professor of physics, said Merkle runs an “extremely efficient and productive facility, and always finds the time to talk to students and postdoctoral scholars, and answer all of their questions about how to design equipment.”

“This component of the education of experimental physicists and scientists from other disciplines serves them all extremely well,” Cabrera said. “Karlheinz has also participated in the shop instruction class where students and postdocs are trained in the proper use of machine shop equipment. Again, this education has been very important as part of their training as experimental scientists.”

A welcoming persona

Monika Schleier-Smith, an assistant professor of physics, said Merkle combines an extraordinary depth of technical expertise with a rare willingness to invest time in understanding the detailed requirements of complex physics experiments. She said Merkle has a “welcoming persona” that leads to an exceptional rapport with graduate students.

Schleier-Smith said that to understand Merkle’s vital role in the Physics Department, it is important to know that progress in experimental physics is largely driven by the development of new technical capabilities.

“In my lab, we are broadly interested in finding new ways of controlling the interactions in quantum mechanical systems, with an eye towards developing non-classical states of matter that could enable new paradigms of computation and enable clocks and sensors to operate at the fundamental quantum mechanical limits on precision,” she said.

“Pursuing these visions requires a customized apparatus for isolating a select atomic species in ultrahigh vacuum, cooling these atoms within a millionth of a degree of absolute zero, and carefully manipulating and probing them with laser light. The tools we need cannot be bought off the shelf. My graduate students need to build them, and I have been extremely fortunate to be able to rely on Karlheinz to support them every step of the way.”

Yao-Te Cheng, an engineering research associate in the Hesselink Group, said he needed many mechanical parts to fabricate a big, complicated vacuum/high voltage system for a new differential phase contrast X-ray system. Merkle, he said, was thoughtful and patient.

“Every time I talked to him, he tried very hard to teach me about every aspect for improving the design of my mechanical parts – to make it simpler, more flexible and less expensive to fabricate,” Cheng said. “He worked very hard to help me meet the timeline of my research projects. He made my research idea come true.”