Jeffrey Miller on Scientists as Optimists
  Jeffrey Miller     Biography    
Recorded: 08 Mar 2006

Well, I don’t think I could ever say I was disappointed because like a lot of scientists I’m an eternal optimist. I’m like a lot of people -- the question “Is the glass half filled or half empty?” I always think it’s completely filled. So I uh, and in experimental science, because I’m really an experimentalist, every failure really gives you things you can learn from. So if you look at it that way, I wasn’t ever disappointed in any large sense ever in my scientific career. I just always was very optimistic and all of the scientists or the mentors I came in contact with, they were all incredible optimists. They were all very ambitious, they had great dreams and uh, ambitions, and that optimism spilled over. And I think you’ll find that most scientists are very optimistic. And if you do experimental research, if you …you do get emotionally attached to wanting an experiment to work. But if you allow yourself to get depressed because experiments don’t work, then you’re in the wrong field. Because you’ll need a psychiatrist before you get your Ph.D. Experimental science operates by following up false leads, doubling back and then finding the real thing. It’s like being a detective. And you can’t let yourself get down with failure. So I can’t think of a major disappointment I’ve had with regard to science. The,.. perhaps the, at least not with regard to my own career, with regard to science in general, perhaps when occasional frauds are unmasked, I think all of us suffer a disappointment because there’s a kind of compact among scientists that despite all the competition even today, and all the commercialism, there is a general kind of covenant, a trust, that we are uh, seeking to unlock nature’s truths and we’re not seeking to falsify or fabricate things. And so when an occasional person violates that, that’s a big disappointment. That happens periodically throughout the history of molecular biology. But as far as personally, I’m always optimistic. I think you have to be, particularly if you’re an experimentalist. But it’s also true of theory. You’re trying to advance scientific knowledge, and the whole goal of making the theory is trying to prove it wrong, or.., so then you can move on to the next theory. In fact the philosopher Karl Popper whose book, Logic of Scientific Discovery, was another influential book I read. His whole principle is that knowledge advances by the falsification of hypotheses. So I uh, can’t say I’ve had any major disappointments that have lingered.

Jeffrey H. Miller, Ph.D., is the Distinguished Professor of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. After receiving his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Rochester, he did graduate work in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard in the department that included Jim Watson and Walter Gilbert, doing his thesis work under Jonathan Beckwith at Harvard Medical School. His postdoctoral work was pursued under Benno Müller-Hill at the Institute for Genetics of the University of Cologne in Germany, followed by 11 years on the faculty at the University of Geneva's Department of Molecular Biology, which was then headed by Alfred Tissières. In 1983 he joined the faculty at UCLA, where his scientific focus has been large-scale DNA sequencing and genomic analysis, the enzymology of DNA repair, protein structure, and the role of DNA repair enzymes in human cancer. He received the 2007 Career Award for Research from the Environmental Mutagen Society.

Miller has been a frequent participant at Cold Spring Harbor Symposia, a course lecturer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and a co-organizer of two meetings at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Banbury Center. He has been a consultant and principal in various biotechnology companies since the 1980s. In 1994 he co-founded Diversa Corporation, which has merged to become Verenium, a publicly owned biofuel company. He is the author of several books and laboratory manuals published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, including "Experiments in Molecular Genetics" (1972), "A Short Course in Bacterial Genetics" (1992), and "Discovering Molecular Genetics" (1996).