For Tabitha Miller, 2021 quickly ushers in an exciting transition as she finishes her PhD in chemistry in January and joins the Argonne National Laboratory in February as a postdoctoral researcher in the Catalysis Group, working on energy and sustainability projects.
“The first of these, which is already established, is a polymer upcycling project, basically how can we turn used plastics into other useful chemicals,” said Miller, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research fellow. “The second of these, which will be a new project in the group, is studying CO2 capture and conversion using metal catalysts.”
As a member of Alison Fout’s research group, Miller already has experience at Argonne, not only in the Advanced Photon Source, where the Fout lab obtained beamtime to run crystals, but also experience on one of the best ways to get “around” the facility.
“At APS, because of its circular shape, there are tons of tricycles used to travel around the building,” said Miller, who has worked in the Fout Group on small molecule activation using non-heme iron complexes.
“In particular, I study nitrogen and selenium oxyanion reduction similar to biological pathways,” she said.
This research is fundamentally important, she explained, for gaining a better understanding of how secondary coordination sphere interactions influence oxyanion binding and reduction, and ultimately, it is important for human health and environmental reasons.
“Oxyanions are potent groundwater contaminants that are at higher levels in water systems than what Nature can handle on its own through enzymes,” Miller said. “Finding methods to remediate these species is the ultimate goal for this research. I find this work interesting because it allows me to conduct fundamental research which could eventually lead to applications in everyday life.”
But Miller has focused on more than just research as a graduate in the Department of Chemistry.
She’s been involved with the Women Chemists Committee, serving on its board, volunteering for the annual Bonding with Chemistry Day Camp for girls and other outreach activities.
Last year, Miller was recognized for excellence in both outreach work and research by the UIUC Graduate College during its annual “Celebrating Diversity, Recognizing Excellence” reception that recognizes graduate students from underrepresented populations for excellence in teaching, research or service.
Miller said the award was meaningful, because she was being recognized for activities outside of research, especially her involvement with the WCC Day Camp for Girls.
“To me, this shows that the department is mindful and aware that a PhD isn’t just about research, and that as scientists, our commitment to professional development and outreach is just as important," said Miller, who has loved participating in the Girls’ Day Camps.
“They were events I looked forward to every year. I really enjoyed just seeing how smart and enthusiastic these young girls were about science, and how they weren’t afraid or embarrassed to be interested in it,” she said. “It makes me really excited to think that some of those girls will grow up to be doctors and scientists and really make an impact on peoples’ lives through their love of science.”
Miller went to high school in Mascoutah, Illinois, but didn’t realize how much she enjoyed chemistry until she was an undergraduate at MIT, majoring in mathematics. She found chemistry more applicable when a general chemistry professor highlighted faculty research projects each week in class.
“One of these highlighted the molecular “sniffing” technology that Prof. Timothy Swager was working on in his group,” she said. “The motivation was to replace bomb-detection dogs in war zones. As an avid dog lover, this just really spoke to me. Chemistry seemed cool and applicable finally, so I switched majors and that was it.”
She chose Illinois chemistry to pursue her PhD, because she was very excited about the work in the Fout group and the people she met who “seemed genuinely happy.”
“Overall, it seemed like a great place to do my PhD,” said Miller, who credits involvement with WCC as an important part of her graduate career, providing her with an informal mentoring network, friendships and professional development opportunities.
“I very strongly encourage all grad students to find a student group or organization to get involved in during their time at UIUC. It’s a great social and professional opportunity and provides a nice mental break from everyday research,” she said.
As a WCC board member, Miller attended multiple dinners with invited speakers, which she said gave her “great opportunities to really get to know” alumni.
“I have actually kept in contact with Stefanie Bumpus (PhD, ’10, Kelleher), a public health advisor at the CDC,” Miller said, adding that Bumpus offered to help with future endeavors. “She participated in the AAAS Science and Technology Fellowship Program, which is something I hope to apply to in the future.”
A three-year-old Beagle named Oakley soaks up a lot of Miller’s free time.
“We like going on long walks or to the dog park,” she said. “I also really enjoying cooking and baking. I love baking cookies of all kinds, especially variations of chocolate chip cookies. As far as cooking goes, I love pasta, so it’s always a go-to for me, but I really like trying new recipes and techniques as well.”