Kathryn Miller, PhD, is professor and chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the differentiation of cell types in multicellular organisms—specifically the roles actin cytoskeleton structures play in some of these specialized cells.
Like many of her colleagues, Miller’s interest in science was sparked during middle school. “I was fascinated by cells and how they worked. Fortunately, my seventh grade biology teacher—Mr. Bliss—was enthusiastic and encouraged that curiosity. I was lucky to have a lot of really great teachers along the way. This is why I believe it is so important to help teachers find better ways to engage students. We need to do more than simply catalogue facts—we need to show students how to investigate and figure out how things work.”
As a longtime supporter of Washington University’s Science Outreach efforts, Miller has played a pivotal role in advancing K-12 science education. Now, as a faculty fellow of the Institute for School Partnership, her focus is advancing STEM education at the undergraduate level.
In September 2012, the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE) selected Miller as one of 40 Vision and Change Leadership Fellows tasked with improving undergraduate life-sciences education nationwide. A joint initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the fellows will consider new educational models and produce a framework of implementation strategies for change.
Miller’s commitment to innovative teaching sprung from her efforts to more fully engage her own students. “I would spend so much time on my lectures—I thought they were wonderful. But afterwards, based on their tests and essays, I realized many of them were simply not getting it.”
Miller read literature on effective teaching practice, attended workshops, and pursued new techniques to enhance conceptual understanding. One method immediately resonated with her own experience: using writing as a tool for deeper understanding. “The very nature of writing requires students to integrate their understanding into a coherent whole. We are only able to explain or “teach” our reader through writing when we fully understand a given concept ourselves.”
Miller is passionate about improving teaching methodology and STEM curriculum reform. “The ability to write coherently and logically is obviously an important and transferrable skill. It’s also a great way to educate scientifically literate citizens. We have learned a lot about the way people learn—but we can do so much better. We need to pick up the pace of change so that we not only educate tomorrow’s scientists, but help the next generation better understand the natural world.”
In addition to her research, teaching, and post as chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, Miller oversees a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Education Grant. The HHMI grant supports curriculum innovation, research opportunities for undergraduates and science outreach initiatives. She also serves as Co-director of an AMGEN Scholars Summer Undergraduate Research fellowship grant supporting 25 undergraduates for intensive biomedical research.