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Oral history interview with Jeffery F. Miller

  • 1997-Oct-15 – 1997-Oct-17

Jeffery F. Miller grew up in Toledo, Ohio, the elder of two children. His father was a pediatrician, his mother a nurse and housewife. His parents were devout Roman Catholics, and religion had a strong influence on Miller: he and his father still debate the harmony between science and religion. As a child Miller went to his father's office and was able to study bacteria through a microscope; this is where his interest in medicine in general and in bacteria specifically began. A study he and his father did of Streptococcus pyogenes won him a fellowship to spend a summer studying bacterial pathogens at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. Miller entered Case Western Reserve University, finishing with a double major in biology and chemistry. Here he talks about fraternity life and his love of motorcycles. Miller's first college classes were large, and he found that he enjoyed college much more when he entered C. Willard Schuster's lab to study plasmid-encoded hemolysin. It happened that he loved the lab and decided to pursue a science rather than a medical career. Most importantly, he met his future wife, Jeanette Polaschek, in college; and here he tells a little about her and her family. Influenced by Moselio Schaechter, whom he calls "almost larger than life," Miller matriculated into Tufts University School of Medicine. He discusses here his classwork and rotations at Tufts. One of his rotations was with Michael Malamy, whom Miller calls the most rigorous scientist he has ever met, and who eventually became Miller's mentor. In Malamy's lab he studied genetic regulation in E. coli. Miller explains the circumstances surrounding his entry into the Stanley Falkow lab at Stanford University School of Medicine; at Stanford he also spent a year in the Lucy S. Tompkins lab. Miller greatly admired Falkow, and in one of their discussions, Miller coined the term "the Zen of pathogenesis." He talks about his debt of gratitude to Lucy S. Tompkins; Falkow's approach to science; and the diversity of research projects in the Falkow lab. Miller studied gene regulation in Bordetella pertussis; and then Bordetella bronchiseptica in guinea pigs as a model of host-parasite interaction. Miller talks about Falkow's creativity and ability to enlist capable scientists in his lab; Falkow's success at finding jobs for his postdocs; and what it was like to serve as a bacterial genetics consultant at Affymax biotech company. Miller accepted an assistant professorship at University of California, Los Angeles, with a good start-up package. His lab personnel have been doing research on the molecular biology of transmembrane signaling; his graduate student Brian Akerley has reversed the circuitry regulating virulence and that regulating motility. Miller has developed Listeria monocytogenes as a bacterial probe and has been experimenting with viral vaccines. He discusses the prospect of testing the lab's vaccines in humans; obstacles to developing a workable vaccine; his competitors and how designing innovative experiments reduces competition between labs; his plans to study transmission of infections in vivo; and his study of bacterial pathogens' interaction with the immune system. Miller's rigorous approach to science infuses his management of his lab. Miller talks about his funding; science funding in the United States; the benefits of being a Pew scholar; his patent issues; his hopes of partially funding his own research through founding a company; the need for basic research; and how teaching and research are mutually beneficial. He then gets more specific and personal, talking about MD's in the lab; his lab's publication record and what he construes as reviewer bias in competitive biomedical fields; his own journal review procedure; lab safety and the potential dangers surrounding recent biomedical developments; and the impact their children have had on Miller and his wife. He reverts to his science, explaining the characteristics of bacteria and describing what might be new bacterial epidemics. Miller's mother's affliction with an antibiotic-resistant bacterial strain has increased his desire to find answers. As he points out, there is an increasing number of problems with bacterial food poisoning, to which biodiversity among bacteria contributes; he suggests that solutions might be derived from the E. coli genome project. Miller concludes with his philosophy of nature.

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