Fermilab Student and Postdoc Association talks with Katrina Miller

Katrina Miller

In February, FSPA officer Anna Hall talked with fifth-year University of Chicago Ph.D. student Katrina Miller, who works on MicroBooNE. They discussed about how Miller became interested in physics, her work to make physics more accessible to marginalized communities, and overcoming adversity in her pursuit of a career in science.

Anna Hall: What are you studying?

Katrina Miller: During my first two years of grad school, I was a collaborator on a liquid-xenon detector called XENON1T, which searches for signs of dark matter. After I got my master’s and qualified to be a Ph.D. candidate, I switched over to study neutrino oscillations. Specifically, I’m working toward setting the first measurement of an exclusive differential electron-neutrino cross-section on liquid argon.

Why physics? How did you get into this field?

I have the classic story of being fascinated with the universe ever since I was a child. I didn’t consider science as a career growing up because I didn’t see anyone in it that looked like me, that I could see myself in, and I didn’t have any mentors or family members telling me that this is something that I could pursue. I’m the first scientist in my family. I was that kid who was always hyped about the space and solar system units in class and going to the planetarium. So all of the clues were there, but it wasn’t until I took an astronomy for nonmajors class my freshman year of college that I found a teacher who said, “Oh, yeah, you really like this. You should do this. You should actually try to pursue this as a major.” And I was like, whoa! I didn’t even know I could do that. So I declared the physics major a year later than everyone else, and it was all very intimidating, but it ended up working out.

What do you want to do after you graduate?

I’m not entirely sure. I know I want to make an impact, and I think that can translate into several different career paths. Specifically, I’m interested in making science more accessible for marginalized communities and making science more inclusive for marginalized identities. That can look like continuing as an academic, being a scientist at a national lab, transitioning into a career in science communication, teaching, or even working at an institution like the Field Museum or Museum of Science. Recently, I’ve been very interested in science writing, and writing in general, as a form of activism and advocacy.

You said earlier that you had that professor that really pushed you into physics. Who else has inspired you and helped you throughout your physics career?

Upon realizing that I’ll be the third Black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago, I took it upon myself to figure out who came before me. I am forever inspired by those physicists who paved the way. The first Black woman to graduate with a physics Ph.D. at the University of Chicago was Willetta Greene-Johnson, in 1988. The second Black woman to do the same was Cacey Stevens Bester in 2015. She was finishing as I was coming in!

It sounds like mentorship has been a huge part of your story. What advice do you have for mentors in how best help their mentees?

It is very important to understand that students from a marginalized identity or, like me, at the intersection of more than one marginalized identity require different types of support. I think mentors have a responsibility to educate themselves, to know how to best mentor the students they take on. So, what does that look like? It means initiating those awkward conversations on how they can best support you. It means diving into the literature to learn how to best retain Black and Brown physicists in the field, and learn why they are getting pushed out.

It also means advocating for them. It’s less about big, sweeping statements and more about the smaller efforts: are you supporting the Black students who are actually in your department? Are you making sure they are funded? Are you making sure they feel heard? Do they feel like they have all the tools to survive, thrive, and have a good experience in grad school? Because if you are not actively working toward this, then you are likely passively contributing to a system that pushes people out.

What adversity have you come across, and how have you addressed it or overcome it?

There is always the pressure of imposter syndrome. I think every student experiences it to some degree, but more so if you are of a marginalized identity. I never felt like I personally couldn’t achieve something in physics, but I have felt a fear that other people didn’t think so. And that was what was giving me imposter syndrome: a feeling that I needed to prove to others and that I deserved to be here. I also had to realize that if I were in an external environment that felt encouraging or supporting, then I wouldn’t feel this way.

I have also had to learn how to navigate the way my identities as a Black person and a woman come into play with how my colleagues, my peers, and my advisors interact with me. I have been on the receiving end of countless microaggressions and have had to learn on my own how to identify them as such and understand how to deal with them.

What do you like to do outside of physics?

Back in normal times,  was a huge thrifter. I’d be at the thrift store every other week because I love to shop, and it was an easy way to experiment with my personal style on the cheap. I also really like to write. I’ve started doing a lot of science writing within the past year, and I’m currently taking a two month memoir-writing workshop. And I love to read. Right now I’m reading “1984”.

Is there anything else you want to talk about?

I co-run a local scholarship fund for women of color in STEM graduating from my high school in Mesa, Arizona. It’s called The #IAm Project. We’re completely grassroots-funded, and so far we’ve awarded two recipients with $1,000 scholarships. It’s my way to give back.

Anna Hall is a University of Virginia graduate student on the NOvA experiment and Fermilab Student and Postdoc Association officer.