Mentored research leads to NIH fellowship

“The mentorship is one of the biggest reasons I’m glad I went to Mount Holyoke. When I talk to my peers who didn’t go to a small liberal arts college, it’s so different.”

In high school, Kylee Miller took classes at a local community college, joining its math honors program. She found herself as the only female in the program, with all her professors being male. “It really felt like if I got something wrong, I represented all women being bad at math,” Miller said. “It was too much pressure.”

The learning environment was a bit different at Mount Holyoke, to say the least. Many of Miller’s math professors have been female; she describes one of her advisors, Margaret Robinson, as a “pioneer for women in mathematics.” Surrounded by female, as well as trans and nonbinary students, and supported by mentors, Miller felt comfortable pursuing her STEM field passions. She ended up double-majoring in mathematics and neuroscience.

Miller arrived on campus with a specific research interest: substance abuse disorder. In high school, she worked for her father’s small business alongside employees in recovery, who shared their stories with her. Additionally, while working as an EMT in her hometown, many of the patients she helped struggled with addiction.

Not one to sit around and just hope for the best, Miller connected with Assistant Professor André White in the neuroscience and biology department during her first year. She ended up working in his lab for two years as a research assistant, where she helped automate data analyses and run behavioral trials in a long-term project focused on learning, memory and reward loss relative to drug-seeking behavior. Additionally, she helped launch another research project as a senior undergraduate research associate in a lab run by Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Behavior Marta Sabariego. It focused on the role the hippocampus (a region of the brain) plays in learning and adaptation after reward loss occurs, illuminating mechanisms at play in those suffering from substance abuse disorder.

During her first year, the idea of doing research was “really daunting.” She initially imagined a career in practicing medicine. But the ability to take advantage of research opportunities during the last three years, combined with her “amazing mentors,” has shown her how closely the worlds of research and medicine intertwine. As a result, her career plans have evolved.

“I owe a lot of my early success to having amazing mentors who really pushed me and gave me feedback on research and writing and encouraged me to go for things,” she said.

In 2022 and 2023, she was recognized by a highly competitive national scholarship program for low-income students at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Along with scholarship funds, Miller’s awards include two full-time paid summer research internships (the first of which was last year) at NIH headquarters outside of Washington, D.C., followed by a two-year paid research fellowship at the federal agency. Miller will be moving to the D.C. area after graduation.

After that, she may enroll in a joint MD-Ph.D. program — a goal she would not be contemplating if not for supportive mentors and the chance to work on campus in labs led by accomplished professors. “It’s been such an impactful thing,” she said. “The mentorship is one of the biggest reasons I’m glad I went to Mount Holyoke. When I talk to my peers who didn’t go to a small liberal arts college, it’s so different.”

Looking to pay the benefits of mentorship forward, Miller began working in the chemistry department during her sophomore year as a tutor and mentor of younger students. “I love to give back what I’ve learned,” she said. (Miller’s energy appears boundless: she has also worked as a student health aide and a fitness center monitor on campus.)

After noticing that some chemistry students needed more than just tutors to thrive, she decided to push for change. She met with faculty and administrators to reimagine support services to ensure no one falls behind. “I don’t want anyone to think they cannot pursue a major or career that requires chemistry,” she said. “It’s been very interesting to work with the administration. I think that if Mount Holyoke students are passionate and push for change, things really can change.”

Miller has pushed for change in another way on campus. As a board member of the Planned Parenthood Generation Action Club, she advocated for the distribution of free menstrual products on campus, including in bathrooms. The group also provides informational programming about safe sex and the history of reproductive health rights and justice. “It’s been collaborative and incredibly rewarding,” she said. “We’ve done a lot.”

As she looks back at her time at Mount Holyoke, Miller has no trouble naming things she loved, such as access to mentors and research opportunities and the chance to become close friends with students from around the world. And there’s one other important thing: “The students expect a lot of the College — we hold it accountable. And the College is really willing to work with students.”

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