Demystifying Synchrotron Science
Whether it’s shedding light on the intricacies of the NSLS, trekking to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, or inspiring future scientists to reach their own peaks, biophysical chemist Lisa Miller is up to the challenge.
When Lisa Miller was in graduate school at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, her father dragged her and her sisters to the top of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. It was so much fun, Miller recalled, that he decided that each year their family trip would be to climb to the highest point in one of the 50 states. Her interest continued beyond family outings, and to date, Miller said, she has been to the top of 49 of the 50 high points.
But for Miller, a biophysical chemist working at the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) in Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), there are other, more daunting, mountains to climb — making breakthroughs that could help prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and osteoporosis, for one, and optimizing nutrient availability in the rhizosphere of plants for improved biomass production.
Miller’s research focuses on the study of the chemical makeup of cells and tissues using synchrotron-based infrared and x-ray imaging. “In Alzheimer’s or ALS [also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease], we hope to understand how metal ions impact brain cell death with the hope of preventing this process in the future,” she said. “For the bioenergy studies, we’d like to develop plants that provide a more cost-effective biofuel source that ideally can grow on marginal lands that don’t compete with food crops.”
Miller came to BNL as a postdoc in 1997 and was hired as an assistant scientist in 1999. She is currently the associate division director for spectroscopy and imaging and the spokesperson for infrared beamlines U2B and U10B at the NSLS. She also is an adjunct associate professor at Stony Brook in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry.
“Working at BNL gives me a great opportunity to develop new methods and applications of synchrotron science,” said Miller. “My interactions with faculty at Stony Brook provide an opportunity to use these synchrotron tools to advance our science programs in areas such as bone disease, neurodegenerative diseases and bioenergy applications. The students are the ‘glue’ and the energy that make these collaborations strong and push the science forward.”
Miller clearly enjoys working with students and has a passion for science education. “My mom was a biology teacher and my dad was a chemist, so I was exposed to science very early. But my continued passion comes from the enthusiasm I receive from students and collaborators that get excited about how they could use synchrotron science for their goals,” Miller said.
She mentors high school students, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, and helped to start a BNL program called Introducing Synchrotrons into the Classroom (known as InSynC), which allows high school students to design research studies that use the NSLS.
For her work with students, Miller was honored in 2002 with a U.S. Department of Energy Outstanding Mentor Award and in 2005 by Brookhaven Town for Outstanding Service to the Community in Science.
Clinton Rubin, chair of Stony Brook’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, calls Miller a true triple threat. “She is a terrific mentor, an outstanding biophysicist and an extraordinary collaborator,” he said. “She has opened windows into our own research, by providing unique insights into the chemical and physical properties of bone, helping us understand how disease and aging compromise the ultrastructure of the skeleton. Lisa somehow transforms the NSLS from an intimidating tangle of instruments into a powerful collaborative resource.”
Outside the lab, Miller still finds time for the hobby she fell in love with while in grad school. “The grandeur of nature is amazing, and I escape from phone, email, computer, electricity and all of those daily chains of life,” she said. Although she has trekked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Miller said she is more of a backpacker than a mountain climber. “I’ve only climbed a few peaks that required technical skills,” she explained.
“One day I would like to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which spans from Mexico to Canada along the West Coast. But that’s over 2,600 miles, so it might happen after retirement,” she said, smiling.
— By Patricia Sarica