Attention to detail

Jessica Miller, PhD
Jessica Miller, PhD

In cancer research, it tends to take major scientific breakthroughs to capture the public’s attention. However, Jessica Miller, PhD, believes that the most creative thinking typically occurs in those quiet moments of study and preparation.

“I love that part of my job is to sit and think,” Dr. Miller said. “We like to think that we’re solving problems, but we’re often asking new questions that have yet to be asked.”

It’s this intellectually adventurous attitude that drew Dr. Miller to the medical field. As an undergraduate student at Hillsdale College in Michigan, the biology major was fascinated by how nutrition impacted healthy body processes. Tragedy struck in 2005, however, when her cousin passed away from leukemia. This led to a passion for cancer prevention, as she looked for ways to apply her nutrition expertise toward the field.

Warm weather, familial ties and a top-ranked Nutritional Sciences program drew Dr. Miller to the University of Arizona, where she completed her doctoral degree in November 2010. Her dissertation research explored a potential anti-cancer agent, limonene, and its implications for breast cancer prevention. Limonene, which can be found in citrus peels, has been shown to have a potentially positive pre-cancer effect on breast tissue, but it’s not yet known if there is a direct link between limonene and breast cancer prevention.

“Breast cancer is such a broad field,” Dr. Miller said. “I’m interested in seeing how we can measure the impacts of various treatments on the entire body, and seeing if we can find ways to improve and hone these targeted therapies.”

In March 2011, Dr. Miller began her training to become an independent investigator with Sherry Chow, PhD, serving as her primary mentor, along with Patricia Thompson, PhD, the leader of the University of Arizona Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program. This program will support her as she continues her research to determine the feasibility of limonene’s potential uses and how its impacts can be properly measured.

“The Cancer Center’s mentorship program is ideal for me at this point in my career,” Dr. Miller said. “You’re always mentored and supervised by some of the best researchers in the field who truly support you at every step of the process. My mentoring team has been very interested in my development and my research, and I can’t thank them enough for it.”

Dr. Miller’s time is split between the lab and the office. During lab days, most of her focus is on the process, not the destination. Optimizing extractions, calibrating instruments, establishing parameters — if proper attention isn’t given toward the vital pre- experiment work, there is almost no chance that the end result will be of any use.

“Every good researcher is a bit of a perfectionist.” Dr. Miller said.

Office days are a bit more open-ended. This is where Dr. Miller pours over research papers, medical journals and all the relevant reading material she can find. If any complementary research exists that could help Dr. Miller achieve her goals, this is how she’ll find it.

Dr. Miller’s current fascination has to do with the field of metabolomics (the study of the small molecules present in all cells, tissues and organs) and the metabolite markers related to risk for breast cancer.

“In the early 1900s, physics was considered a dead-end field, if you can believe it,” Dr. Miller said. “People incorrectly stated that all the laws were figured out, but then a new series of experiments led to particle physics, sub-atomic physics, quantum physics. In the 1960s, metabolomics was in the same place. Doctors believed we had every metabolite identified, but now we’re in the midst of all of these fascinating experiments where we’re constantly learning new things. It’s really exciting.”

- Nick Prevenas, Oct. 1, 2012