Environmental Factor, July 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Miller welcomes and challenges 2011 summer interns
By Eddy Ball
Miller told his audience, "It [research] is fun. If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't be doing it." (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Weinberg)
The meeting room where Miller spoke was barely sufficient to accommodate the turnout for his talk. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Weinberg)
Nearly every one of the 50 students participating in the 2011 NIEHS Summer Internship Program (SIP) attended a talk June 16 by Acting Scientific Director David Miller, Ph.D. Miller gave the interns a welcome and orientation to NIEHS, and he challenged his young audience to make the most of their summer experience at the Institute.
The program opened with remarks by SIP Coordinator Debbie Wilson and Deputy Scientific Director Bill Schrader, Ph.D., who talked about upcoming scientific talks and career development training for the interns. As they spoke, interns could see on the screen behind the speakers a photo of a much younger Miller, circa 1975, in a rustic lab in Maine.
The official title of Miller's presentation was "Welcome to NIEHS," but the talk was as much about Miller's own career path, his enthusiasm about scientific discovery, and how the different types of scientific research tie into one another at NIEHS.
A look back at seminal experience
As he talked about the experiences that shaped his journey through chemistry, biochemistry, and physiology, Miller's take-home message was simple and far more important than many of his listeners might realize until this summer is behind them. "Make the most of this opportunity to see what research is all about," Miller urged the interns, "because starting is very important."
Miller traced his own start in research to his experience in the summer of his sophomore year as part of the Undergraduate Research Participation Program at the University of Maine. "It was really a seminal event for me," Miller said about working in his chemistry professor's lab, "because it convinced me that what I wanted to do with my life was do scientific research."
"That experience was the most important experience I had in four years as an undergraduate," Miller continued, "because it basically showed me what I could do and what I was good at doing. You now have an opportunity for that experience, to ask and answer those questions... to have a chance to think about where you might end up and how to get there."
Miller's path to NIEHS and integrated environmental science
The internship in the professor's lab sparked interests in research that led Miller from chemistry into biology for a zigzag journey from bird studies on exposure to the pesticide DDT and eggshell thinning as a postdoc in Maine, to research into the blood-brain barrier and his current role as head of the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research.
When Miller turned to the structure of research at NIEHS, he discussed the organization, mission, and integration of research conducted within the Institute's many individual laboratories and groups. While the mission of NIEHS, Miller said, is better understanding the impact of environment on health, he also noted that a priority for senior scientists is creating the next generation of biomedical researchers. "And, that could include you," he told the interns.
Miller gave his audience an introduction into how basic research, toxicological research, clinical research, and epidemiological research feed into one another in a multi-directional interchange of communication. He illustrated this process with several examples, including global climate change, breast cancer research, and the large scale GuLF STUDY now underway to investigate the effects of the Gulf oil spill on cleanup workers. Miller tied "the really big question of how" into the overarching goal of NIEHS - preventing disease and maximizing public health - and told the interns, "This summer, you're a part of all this."
The Summer Intern Program
Along with their hands-on laboratory experiences, NIEHS offers summer interns a full program of training, career development, and scientific presentations, to complement their summer experience at the Institute.
As in past years, the high point of the program is the end-of-summer poster competition, where the interns will present the results of their work in the lab. Some of their projects will go on to become publications with the intern as first author and presentations at meetings of professional groups.
The interns will return to their high schools, colleges, and graduate programs in the fall better trained, more experience, and, in some cases, transformed by the things they've done and the people they've met at NIEHS.