Washington People: Kathryn G. Miller

Miller’s aptitude for figuring things out is evident in her research and teaching

Kathy Miller

David Kilper

Kathryn G. Miller, PhD (center), professor and chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, examines petri dishes with Julie Morrison (right), senior technician, and Mamiko Isaji, PhD, postdoctoral researcher, both in biology. Miller “cares deeply for the people of Washington University and is especially great with students and the young faculty,” says Erik D. Herzog, PhD, associate professor of biology.

Her nose habitually buried in a Nancy Drew mystery, little Kathy Miller spent much of her girlhood trying to crack the case.

Today, Kathryn G. Miller, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, still is playing detective.

With Sherlock Holmes-like intensity, Miller studies cells the way a special agent scrutinizes a crime scene. The adjectives “curious,” “detailed” and “practical” sum up Miller’s modus operandi as she focuses on how certain proteins allow particular cells to perform precise functions.

“That’s the way I look at things,” Miller says. “I’ve got to figure out how they work.”


Love on a cellular level

A Chicago-area middle school teacher sparked the passion that eventually would lead to Miller’s own teaching career. With fond memories, she recalls the contagious enthusiasm of her young seventh-grade science instructor — fortuitously named Mr. Bliss.

“I remember looking at pictures of cells and being incredibly interested in what they were and what they were made up of,” Miller says. “I was kind of a nerd.”

Miller’s love of life sciences took her to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., for an undergraduate degree in chemistry and shortly thereafter to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she earned a doctorate.

It was during postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco, that Miller began studying multicellular organisms. In 1989, she came to WUSTL to teach and continue her research; in 2008, she became chair of the biology department.

Even while overseeing 30 biology faculty members, Miller maintains a keen focus on research.

Her work zeroes in on how cells specialize to perform specific functions in a multicellular organism. Of particular interest is how the cells’ structural proteins contribute to three features and activities: assuming different shapes, connecting with various components and having functional properties critical to their roles.

An important byproduct of her research is that pinning down cell protein activities adds to the knowledge base about widespread diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.

“Many of these same proteins are implicated in cancer cell motility,” Miller says. “So understanding them can lead to better understanding, and even possibly some routes to treatment, of cancers.”

The write stuff

Miller’s dedication to figuring things out spills over into the classroom. Students regurgitating facts is not Miller’s idea of a valuable learning experience. After teaching developmental biology for a few years, she realized her juniors and seniors knew the material but lacked a context for it.

Kathy Miller

Courtesy photo

From left: Kathryn G. Miller, PhD; daughter, Marinda Hanson, 16, a high school junior; and husband, Daniel Hanson, PhD, lecturer in biology at WUSTL.

“On exams, they wrote down what they knew, but they didn’t integrate it into a coherent whole, so you could see how those pieces of information really relate to the idea,” Miller says.

In pursuit of methods to more fully engage her students, Miller turned to The Teaching Center. The center is a resource for all WUSTL professors, assisting them in keeping up with best practices and new technology. There, she attended a writing intensive workshop, designed to aid professors in helping students fulfill an upper-level writing requirement.

Incorporating the techniques she learned in the workshop, Miller transformed her developmental biology course into a writing-intensive class. There, students learn how to read published studies and write their own analysis based on research data to gain a deeper, more complete understanding.

“Showing them recent papers about new discoveries helps them see the process of science and helps them understand that the knowledge of science was still growing and changing,” Miller says. “And by writing about something, you’re really wrestling with your understanding of the material.”

Regina F. Frey, PhD, professor of the practice in chemistry in Arts & Sciences, director of The Teaching Center and Miller’s friend, calls her the center’s “poster child.”

“She came into this workshop, and she said, ‘Wow, I really want to change what’s going on in my courses,’ ” Frey says. “She took what had been basically been a lecture course with some discussion, and she changed it into a very active learning course.”

A personal touch

Another way Miller is promoting enhanced teaching and learning is through grants that support undergraduate research at WUSTL. As the lead investigator of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, Miller selects and oversees students who do biomedical research.

Miller’s passion for state-of-the-art teaching methods extends far beyond WUSTL campus boundaries. She’s also heavily involved in higher-education curricular reform on a national level.

In recent years, she has attended numerous meetings with professors from across the country to share her teaching insights and to learn from others.

“Understanding what others are doing and what’s successful and what’s not helps all of us figure out best strategies for best practices for students that are going to be most effective in helping them learn and to be critical thinkers and problems solvers,” Miller says.

But whether her focus is away or on the WUSTL campus, relationships are paramount to Miller. According to Erik D. Herzog, PhD, associate professor of biology, Miller excels in bringing people together both professionally and personally.

“She has an open-door policy,” Herzog says. “She cares deeply for the people of Washington University and is especially great with students and the young faculty.”

Fast facts about Kathryn G. Miller

Family: Husband, Daniel Hanson, PhD, lecturer in biology at WUSTL; and daughter, Marinda Hanson, 16, a high school junior contemplating a future in veterinary medicine or physical therapy
Culinary passions: Miller says she and her husband “definitely like to eat good food and drink good wine.” Together, they enjoy preparing a variety of offerings for their guests, which range from elaborate dinners to simple comfort food. “I usually cook more homey meals, like meatloaf, spaghetti sauce or pot roast, and I make a very good lasagna.”
Furry and wet pets: Miller’s home includes two dogs, three cats and numerous fish in three large tanks, one of which is saltwater.
Travel: In the summer of 2010, Miller spent one week in Paris, one week in Poland and another week in Yellowstone National Park with 36 family members for her mother’s 80th birthday. The immediate family also has spent many vacations hiking through Yellowstone and other national parks.