Shelie Miller (Chemistry 2000) had an ace in the hole when she interviewed for a faculty spot earlier this year at the University of Michigan. But she couldn’t lay all her cards on the table—not until the White House made the official announcement. Until then, she had to keep mum about receiving a coveted 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, a high honor spotlighting her potential to do groundbreaking research.
In a way, Miller’s work has the potential to keep ground from being broken. She has a five-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study switchgrass, a native perennial grass that has promise as a biofuel source. But nobody knows yet what the environmental impact of switchgrass or other potential biofuels will be. Miller wants to find a way to figure that out before it’s too late.
“When you look at the environmental assessments of technologies, we do a pretty good job with things that already exist,” she says. “But the things that can benefit most from analysis are things we haven’t yet developed. The idea is to try to develop tools to figure out what our mistakes are before we make them.”
By the way, it wasn’t until late August that Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment were notified of the award. By then, they had already hired Miller, who majored in chemistry at Denison and earned her master’s in engineering at Clarkson University and Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Getting a presidential award your first week on the job,” she says, “is a pretty good way to start out.”