Harvard University is among the most renowned educational institutions in the world, and come fall, an East Tennessee State University graduate will be researching physics at that centuries-old school.
Olivia Miller, from Maryville, will graduate summa cum laude today from ETSU with a major in physics and a minor in math.
She was in the ETSU Honors College, which requires a thesis for students.
Her thesis was on reactive intermediates in hypoxia-selective DNA damage.
That means she was looking into a drug that fights cancer cells. This particular drug targets cancerous cells because those cells are oxygen-deficient.
She worked alongside an ETSU professor for this project.
“There’s a lot that’s unknown about that process, so I was trying to study factors in that process,” Miller said. “So mostly this year I’ve been focusing on my thesis,” Miller said with a laugh.
Miller took physics in high school and has always liked math, but did not really consider physics as a career until college.
“I really like understanding how things work,” she said.
She will be attending Harvard this fall for a doctorate in physics.
So how did she get into the prestigious university?
Miller attended a research exposition for undergraduates at Duke University and also went to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN, in Switzerland this past summer.
Miller was at CERN when scientists discovered the Higgs boson particle, also known as the “God particle.”
“I think that really got me some strong research experience,” Miller said. “It was a really great experience. It was one of those experiences that was priceless, really.
“I think a lot that played into (her successful Harvard application) was my research experience helped my application stand out more.”
She was accepted to Harvard on Feb. 15 but said that fact has still not yet sunk in.
“It still catches me off guard,” she said when people come up to her and congratulate her on the acceptance.
Miller applied to Harvard because she was impressed with its research offerings.
“I was just looking at their research and all the research opportunities they had ... and stuff I would be excited by, so I thought ‘why not?’ ” Miller said. “There’s such a broad range of really exciting research.”
The physics doctorate program at Harvard consists of two years of coursework and probably four, maybe more, years of research.
Miller’s goals include remaining in a university setting and continuing research and teaching.
“I want to do experimental research,” Miller said.
She wanted to thank everyone in the ETSU physics department for her positive experience and her success.
“They’ve been my encouragement,” Miller said. “It’s kind of a bittersweet moment to be leaving.”
ETSU will hold two graduation ceremonies today in the Mountain States Health Alliance Athletic Center.
Dr. Philip Bagnell, who will retire this summer as ETSU’s medical dean, will be the keynote speaker at the 10 a.m. commencement exercises, and ETSU alumnus Mike Smith, who is now head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, will address the 2 p.m. ceremony.