Alumni Profiles Series: Heather Miller

 February 7, 2024

Scientist and educator Heather Miller came to Duke after receiving her B.S. in molecular biology and biotechnology from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She began her doctoral studies in the Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) program and completed her Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, with certificates in both CMB and College Teaching. She then served as a teaching postdoctoral fellow in the biotechnology program at North Carolina State University before joining High Point University (HPU), where she is an associate professor of chemistry. She has received NIH funding for her research on antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and she has been recognized nationally as a 2023 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awardee. Beyond her professional endeavors, Heather enjoys baking, camping, and has a keen interest in exploring wines and vineyards across North Carolina.

How did your experience at Duke contribute to shaping your career trajectory in academia and teaching?

My desire to become a teacher stemmed from the impactful professors I met in my undergraduate years at Clarion University. Upon realizing that a Ph.D. would pave the way for a professorial role, graduate school was a significant goal for me. My time at Duke was pivotal in shaping my career path in academia. As a first-generation college student, coming to a place like Duke and working with world-renowned scientists daily was really a great chapter of my life; in particular, Dr. Mariano Garcia-Blanco as my research advisor and Dr. Beth Sullivan as a teaching mentor provided invaluable insights. While at Duke, I sought to enhance my research training with pedagogical skills. I pursued a teaching certificate, now known as the Certificate in College Teaching. This training, coupled with shadowing experiences and guidance from Dr. Beth Sullivan, equipped me with essential skills such as drafting syllabi and teaching philosophies. Duke offered options to support a career in teaching within academia, even though it wasn't the most popular choice among research-focused students. I creatively sought avenues to pursue options beyond a traditional R1 professor career, aiming for a role emphasizing teaching.

What is your teaching philosophy, and how did you develop it?

Following Duke, my unconventional path led me to a teaching postdoc at NC State, focusing 80% on teaching and pedagogical research and 20% on mentoring undergraduates in research. Under the guidance of Dr. Sue Carson, leading the biotechnology program, I developed new lectures and lab courses while delving into the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). This experience, treating teaching as a scientific experiment, allowed me to collect extensive data over three years, exploring effective methods for student learning and addressing misconceptions. In my current  Irole at HPU I engage with diverse populations daily, from teaching classes to one-on-one student mentorship and committee meetings. My teaching philosophy centers on continuous practice, study, and adaptation, recognizing the need to understand students' mindsets and correct misconceptions for meaningful learning experiences.

Tell me more about your pedagogical research and its outcomes.

In terms of my pedagogical research, a notable accomplishment is my co-authorship of a molecular biology techniques laboratory textbook. Commencing at NC State, I played a crucial role in its development, progressing from the third edition to becoming the lead author of the fourth edition. This involved a substantial revamp, introducing contemporary methods such as bioinformatic tools, CRISPR, and enhanced cell culture experiments. The textbook, spanning 30 chapters, addresses not only lab experiments but also delves into the principles and science behind the techniques. It incorporates pre-lab quizzes, answer keys, and prep lists, providing comprehensive resources for instructors. The project was akin to working on multiple papers under review simultaneously, reflecting its complexity. We are currently working on a fifth edition.

At High Point University, my research explored the growth mindset, a concept popularized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. This mindset, emphasizing the belief in the ability to improve with practice, has been integrated into our teaching methodologies. We actively promote the idea that abilities are not fixed at birth and that improvement is achievable through dedication. The effectiveness of this approach has been a focus of my research at High Point University, aiming to enhance the learning experience in our classes.


What are you looking forward to in your future research?

In recent years, my research focus has transitioned from pedagogical studies to bacterial research, particularly on MRSA. This unexpected shift stemmed from a collaboration with Dr. Megan Blackledge, a bioorganic chemist [and fellow Duke Ph.D. alumna] at HPU. Dr. Blackledge's expertise lies in synthesizing and evaluating drugs, with a specific interest in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Our collaboration delved into understanding the effectiveness of antibiotic adjuvants in combating MRSA, a deadly pathogen resistant to many antibiotics. My lab uses transcriptomic approaches to reveal gene expression changes when MRSA is challenged with antibiotics and/or adjuvants.

Through our work, we repurposed several FDA-approved drugs as antibiotic adjuvants. They effectively killed multiple strains of MRSA and inhibited its growth in biofilms in vitro. The collaboration not only led to successful outcomes but also secured external funding from the NIH, a notable achievement for a smaller institution like High Point. Obtaining this grant in 2019 allowed us to expand our research, involve undergraduate teams, publish papers, and recently receive a renewal for another three years.

Looking ahead, I am excited about furthering our understanding of antibiotic resistance mechanisms and exploring innovative solutions. While I have dedicated considerable time to bacterial research, I remain passionate about incorporating my experiences and insights into pedagogical approaches. Having students in lab-intensive courses work with real data and even contribute to experiments that my team is working on leads to some synergy between my teaching and research. Balancing both research and teaching aspects of my career, I aim to contribute meaningfully to advancements in both fields.

How did you balance your teaching and research during that transition period?

In the process, I've adjusted how I manage the combination of teaching and research responsibilities. With external funding, I now teach fewer classes annually. Unlike R1 institutions where faculty are often expected to secure external grants, at HPU, my emphasis is on leading small research teams with internal university funds, typically comprising two to four undergraduate students.

The external funding allows me to buy myself out of a course each year, reducing my teaching load and facilitating a more balanced allocation of time towards research endeavors. While I continue to teach every semester, the reduced teaching commitment enables me to invest more time and energy into advancing our research initiatives. My undergraduate research lab has also grown significantly. This model aligns with HPU's structure, emphasizing undergraduate research as early as the first year of college and providing a supportive environment for faculty to engage in impactful research without the extensive external grant pressure.

While established funding agencies like NSF and NIH are prominent in supporting scientific research, what strategies do you employ to secure funding for pedagogical research?

At High Point University, we're fortunate to have internal funding support for pedagogical research, which significantly differs from external funding mechanisms common in scientific research. In my role, I conduct pedagogical research that essentially incurs minimal costs beyond the investment of time. The university recognizes and supports these efforts, acknowledging the value of the extra time and effort invested beyond typical teaching responsibilities. While I initially focused heavily on pedagogical work, my career progression and tenure have allowed me to be more selective. I can now prioritize key projects, such as the textbook, while being mindful of balancing teaching, research, and service responsibilities. This strategic approach ensures that my research efforts remain focused and impactful, benefiting both my professional development and the educational experience of my students.

What advice do you have for current Duke graduate students?

My advice to current Duke graduate students would be to proactively build a network of mentors, emphasizing the importance of having multiple mentors with diverse perspectives. While fantastic mentors at Duke provided valuable insights, relying on a single person might not align perfectly with one's career goals. I personally sought mentors with different experiences and perspectives, recognizing the need for diversity in guidance. Despite the limited representation of women in my department at the time, I made a conscious effort to include two women, Dr. Beth Sullivan, and Dr. Georgia Tomaras, on my thesis committee for their perspectives. My best advice is to collect mentors throughout your career, and diversity in mentorship enhances your overall guidance. Over the years, I've observed positive changes at Duke, including increased diversity and improved preparation for diverse career paths beyond R1 institutions. It's encouraging to witness a shift in recognizing diverse career options within academia, making it essential for current Ph.D. students to explore and embrace various possibilities.


Prajakta Prabhune headshot
Prajakta Prabhune

Ph.D. candidate, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Prajakta Prabhune, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, holds bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering and product design, respectively.  Prajakta's prior research and professional experience includes design and simulation for structural impact dynamics, vehicular occupant safety and experimental characterization of fiber composites. Currently, she is engaged in collaborative projects funded by AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) and NSF grants, exploring the modeling and design of polymer nanocomposites for structural and energy storage materials. She is also interested in exploring science and technology policy around energy transition, electrification and driving research in energy storage materials accordingly. An affiliate member of aiM (an NRT program for AI+materials research at Duke), she was a 2021-22 Bass digital education fellow, leading a joint digital learning project with aiM and Learning Innovation at Duke. Prajakta has provided guidance to students as they transitioned into Ph.D. programs and currently serves as a mentor to a first-year Ph.D. student and an undergraduate research student.