Profile with Sarah Holmes Miller

Sarah Holmes Miller (Texas & New College 2008) is currently a postdoctoral research scholar at the California Institute of Technology and also spends time at the University of California, Riverside. She holds a DPhil in Astrophysics from the University of Oxford, and two Honors B.S. degrees, in Astronomy and Physics, from the University of Texas at Austin. This autumn, she will be joining the University of California, Irvine, as a Chancellor’s Fellow.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite science or tech blog?

Sarah Miller: I read the Discover blogs from time to time and a very helpful blog specific to astrophysicists called AstroBetter. Most of the science writing I read is old-fashioned paper copy: Scientific American, and the science and tech sections of the Economist, or when they have features in the Atlantic or even in the New Yorker. Really, I get so much science during the day, most of what I read is not science, and I suppose a little old-fashioned since it’s in print.

Rhodes Project: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Sarah Miller: I really love traveling and I love different cultures, but I think the best place to be is where my friends and family are. So I’d say it’s more about the people rather than a specific place.

Rhodes Project: When did you know you wanted to be an astrophysicist?

Sarah Miller: It’s funny because I read an old journal from when I was twelve, and I had written, along with a list of quite a few other things, that I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I don’t know where that little spark of clairvoyance came from, because I don’t think I even knew what an astrophysicist did at that point. But I didn’t set out to do this specifically above anything else. I was interested in so much, but what I found most challenging in school was physics. So I thought: well, if I’m going to go to college for anything, I’d better go for physics and get better at it. I wanted to challenge myself first, and then if I found that I actually didn’t like it, I would do something else. While difficult at first, I did end up really liking it. Astrophysics I loved the most because it was an interface of many different types of interesting physics coming together in an awesome context. I love that the universe is my laboratory.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you?

Sarah Miller: I would have to say what inspires me most are people whom I admire, which are quite a few in number. While I love and adore the men in my life, I want to highlight the strong and inspiring women. I have a strong mother-line. I really admire my mother and my grandmothers and all of the strong women in my family, as well as my friends and peers who teach me so much every day. But then there are quite a number of women that I haven’t met yet or can never meet because they’ve passed on. These past couple years, I have been on a binge of great and inspiring women from history. I love their biographies about their challenges and how they overcame, as well as their great works.

Rhodes Project: What distracts you?

Sarah Miller: The internet, for sure. It’s just vast, and you can find so many interesting things. And it’s tricky because you come across help and inspiration there all the time. This is something that is going to become more and more of a challenge for us all at this point in history--individuals having to step back from this window to everything and actually get their work done. At times it can take significant willpower to pull away from all the amazing things that are happening in the world, which you can have instant access to. There is a real, spiritual danger there, but so much opportunity and good as well.

Rhodes Project: What is an average day at work like?

Sarah Miller: It’s varied depending on what part of the process I’m in. For instance, right now I am at a point in my research where I’m really hungry for a result. I’ve been working on this particular study for several months now, and I’m very close to some answers… or at least a new way to ask better questions. So my current day-to-day is a lot of coding, analysis and graphing. But at other times, it’s many more meetings, going to or leading seminars and workshops, conferences and giving talks, and every once in a while, I’ll have time on a telescope to observe more of the universe. That’s probably one of the more romantic parts of my job: getting to stay up all night with a sense of exploration and discovery. You’re in charge of this huge, multi-million dollar instrument, and you get to point it where you want, capturing these photons that have been streaming across billions of miles of outer space. That’s an amazing part of my job, but those times are few and far between. It can be a real slog analyzing the data I collect, trying to tease out an understanding of what is actually happening in the universe.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of being a post-doc?

Sarah Miller: I guess the answer is that there’s a time and place for everything. The best part of being a post-doc is that you get to focus on research and you’re not very `distracted’ by teaching and management work that all comes later in an academic career. Teaching and managing are important, and I really look forward to doing them later on if I stay in academia, but I am trying to take this opportunity to really focus on research and get a lot of good work done. This set-up also gives me a bit more time for outreach.

Rhodes Project: What would readers on our site be surprised to learn about you?

Sarah Miller: If they don’t know me and have just read the summary of an astrophysicist, they probably would be surprised to learn that I’m also a very art-driven person. I really love music, art and many artistic forms of expression. For instance, I’ve been painting and writing music since I was little. Just recently I’ve gone through a particularly creative burst of music and song writing.

I suppose you have two typical stereotypes for scientists – unfortunately neither of whom tend to be female in peoples’ minds.  One is the intuitive genius: an emotional Einstein, in love with the universe, who also enjoys art and music but is a little bit crazy and ‘out there’. The other is ultra-analytical, almost mechanical or robotic; someone who has very little patience for the artistic soul and is a bit of a logical extremist. Of course, in real life, most of us are somewhere in between those two. You do find many scientists with a more artistic side; there is a lot of creativity involved in doing good work. You can’t just have pure logic and analysis, and that’s it.

Rhodes Project: What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Sarah Miller: While I am proud of specific instances of the work I’ve accomplished, I think I’m most proud of something much more intangible and hard to define: being fairly successful in an environment which isn’t always easy, especially if you are different. The part I can be proud of is working hard, but I have no control over the huge amount of luck that I’ve had. Always I want the next thing to be better than the last, so I avoid focusing too much on specific things that went well. Especially because, honestly, everything I’ve done, I could have made better or squeezed a bit more from. I hope future work is what will make me most proud. For now, I’ll have to say being at least somewhat successful thus far in an environment that is not always the easiest to navigate or perform within. None of it is possible without support, and I’ve been blessed to have friends and family to love and support as they have so selflessly and lovingly supported me.

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