This week, we highlight the work of Dr. Arnie Miller. Dr. Miller is an Advisory Board member of the UC Center for Public Engagement with Science, as well as Professor Emeritus, former Head of the UC Geology Department, and former Senior Associate Dean of the UC College of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Miller is an evolutionary paleontologist and paleoecologist. His research has focused on mass extinctions and their impacts on global biodiversity, environmental gradients, and anthropogenic effects on modern coastal communities. Dr. Miller differs from a lot of paleontologists in that his passion did not stem from a childhood interest in dinosaurs or other fossils. He grew up in New York City, and with the exception of the American Museum of Natural History, there are not a lot of fossils to be found there. Dr. Miller found became interested in geology while living among geology majors in college. He took a course in geology to learn more about what his peers were talking about, ultimately leading to him pursuing majors in geology and biology. During his studies, he was inspired by a professor who introduced him to using fossils as data to study biodiversity and mass extinctions, which is when he first became passionate about paleontology.
In 2007, Dr. Miller was elected as a Fellow of the Paleontological Society for, among other work, being instrumental in the Paleobiology Database (PBDB). This website is a compilation of fossil data, where they were found, the publication that described them, and where they can be found now. It is used by paleontologists with an interest in “big data”- the use of multiple collections to piece together an understanding of broad trends in space and time. However, this database is open source, and is also used by instructors to give their students experience processing data.
Since then, Dr. Miller has served as the President of the Paleontological Society; he is currently finishing his term as Past President. In this position, he has strived to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion. He has encouraged the scientific community to acknowledge our previous shortcomings in these areas. He is co-chair of the Society’s ethics committee, dedicated to ensuring that Society is inviting, safe, and inclusive for all participants in its activities. He and his colleagues are working to improve opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds to enter all fields of science. The Society has been developing financial opportunities for underrepresented minorities, and Society representatives now regularly attend meetings focused on minority inclusion in science, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). They also work to increase education and outreach that specifically targets underrepresented audiences.
Dr. Miller also addressed outreach and community involvement in science in his role as Head of the Geology Department and as A&S Senior Associate Dean. When the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) closed for renovations a few years ago, he was a part of a group that worked to bring some of the exhibits to the University of Cincinnati campus. Along with this, they scheduled programs such as a panel on global climate change that drew in community members in Cincinnati. CMC exhibits were also set up at the airport, and the teams behind this and the University exhibits held a townhall at a conference for museum professionals about their experiences setting these up. These exhibits being in different environments effectively brought the museum to people who might not normally visit, resulting in more engagement than may normally be possible.
Dr. Miller also has had the opportunity to engage in debates about evolution and creation. He thinks that engaging people of all backgrounds and belief systems is important without being perceived as condescending. As part of the 2009 North American Paleontology Convention hosted at UC, Miller, who was chair of the organizing committee, took 75 paleontologists to visit the Creation Museum to give them a firsthand look at what and how ideas were being communicated there. Members of the group found the visit to be eye-opening, with respect to how professionally ideas were presented from a strictly technical standpoint, even though those ideas diverged from accepted science. Responding to dissent is important, but scientists do not always communicate well, and doing so well with humility and respect is crucial. Every year while teaching an introductory-level course on the history and evolution of life , he spent a week on the creationism-versus-evolution question, including inviting a representative from the Creation Museum to speak to the class at the end of the semester ; this was followed by extensive, in-class discussion . While Dr. Miller does not think that direct debates with creationists are helpful or productive, he does encourage scientists be aware of and understand the bases of other views. Through the study and discussion of creationism, he hoped that students would come to understand what information was being taken out of context. He also encouraged them to listen, rather than making wholesale judgements about what others think; everyone’s beliefs and ideas have multiple dimensions and need to be taken seriously.
As an emeritus professor, Dr. Miller is continuing to work with the Paleontological Society and University. Besides his work on the Center’s Advisory Board, he is also helping to develop a Digital Futures Consultant program for new and young faculty at the University of Cincinnati. He’s also becoming more politically involved; in the most recent election, he served as a poll watcher and on a “Protect the Vote” hotline for people who had questions about how to vote.
Dr. Miller’s message is one of encouragement. He wants people to keep their minds open to other people and opportunities around them, especially those outside of the classroom. Had it not been for the experiences he had in college, especially those that focused on working with data , he likely would have taken a different path. In recruiting diverse participants to paleontology and geology, he advocates speaking about the diverse opportunities there are for people who want to work in these areas. “Field work and adventures in the out of doors can be off-putting, at least initially, to people who grow up in urban settings, for example, and yet we do other things that aren’t field work, such as working on computers and in geochemistry labs.” Paleontology and geology are not just for those who enjoy field work and dinosaurs; these fields, and science in general, are diverse and have something for everyone.