Kennesaw State Graduate Sees Teaching as Tool to End Poverty

KENNESAW, Ga. (May 24, 2021) — As a teenager, Almuth Merkel volunteered at a daycare center in Chile as part of an international exchange program, an experience that sparked a lifelong passion for fighting poverty and food insecurity. Having earned her Ph.D. in International Conflict Management from Kennesaw State University, Merkel is ready to take her fight global once again.

Following three semesters as a graduate teaching assistant in the Michael J. Coles College of Business, Merkel plans to pursue a career in education. She is applying to university teaching positions in South America and Asia, where she plans to help lift people out of poverty by studying its root causes.

PhD Graduate Almuth Merkel Taught Economics at the Michael J. Coles College of Business

An international student from Germany, Merkel’s desire to help the poor started when she spent a year after high school volunteering with a nonprofit to work with underprivileged children at the Jardín Naciente daycare center in Santiago, Chile.

“For a year, I got to experience living in a slum with a very low budget,” Merkel said. “Working in the daycare, doing the same kinds of jobs my neighbors did and taking care of their children so they could work, I learned about the challenges of trying to live a healthy life with little money.”  

Merkel’s original career goal was to work for a nongovernmental organization after graduation. However, teaching introductory economics courses for the Coles College Department of Economics, Finance, and Quantitative Analysis inspired her to teach full time.

“Now that I’ve had the opportunity to teach, I know what I want to do with my life,” Merkel said. “Students can be difficult, even nerve-wracking, sometimes. But, in the end, I learned so much about myself while preparing material and explaining it to students in class and in office hours.”

Marcus Marktanner, a Coles College economics professor and Merkel's dissertation adviser, said he has been impressed with her work in the classroom.

“If a student is looking for an easy class, Almuth is probably the student's wrong choice,” Marktanner said. “Yet, if a student is looking to learn and grow, Almuth will bend over backwards to help every student rise to every challenge.”

Almuth Merkel with Coles College colleague and dissertation advisor Marcus Marktanner
Almuth Merkel with Marcus Marktanner

Marktanner met Merkel while she was a master’s student at Anhalt University in Bernburg, Germany, where he teaches a course on food security for an exchange agreement with Kennesaw State. He encouraged her to visit Kennesaw on a research trip and, ultimately, to pursue a degree from KSU.

“It was clear to me that Almuth has a natural talent for thinking like an economist and reading the economic stories in real-world data,” Marktanner said.

The two have partnered on eight research projects on food security, conflicts, and children’s health during the last four years, including on three papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Merkel has also completed fellowships with the Bagwell Center for the Study of Markets and Economic Opportunity and the Education Economics Center.

As an educator, Merkel plans to continue her research into what causes conflict, poverty, and food insecurity by building off her dissertation work on how social market economy principles – which explore the interplay between free market capitalism and social policies – influence peace, prosperity, and environmental sustainability.

In addition to developing her teaching and research skills at Kennesaw State, Merkel has also become a talented computer scientist. She began taking classes in the College of Computing and Software Engineering to learn how to present her data graphically on the web. Merkel enjoyed the work so much that she earned a graduate certificate in data management and analytics along with her Ph.D.

While it is common for students in the conflict management program to take an interdisciplinary approach to their educations, Brandon Lundy, associate director of the School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding, and Development, said Merkel was an exceptional case.

“We enjoy working with our colleagues in the Coles College and the Department of Information Technology to ensure our students get the best education,” Lundy said. “It is students like Almuth who help us bridge these disciplinary divides. She embodies the mission of the School to prepare engaged, interdisciplinary change-makers by producing cutting edge, policy-relevant research on conflict, peace, and development to inspire peace and promote positive change.”

In recognition of her successes, the school named Merkel its 2021 Outstanding Student.

Reflecting on her time at Kennesaw State, Merkel is grateful that her Ph.D. program allowed her the flexibility to work closely with Coles College faculty to conduct her research on conflicts and food insecurity.

“The faculty at Coles gave me so many chances to gain experience,” she said. “My entire CV has been put together thanks to the opportunities provided by the Coles College. I wouldn’t be where I am now without that support.”

-Patrick Harbin

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