Marion Miller, a UC Davis expert in men’s reproductive health, died Feb. 25, 2011.
“She faced the pancreatic cancer that took her life with great courage and determination,” her family said. She was 55.
“Marion Miller possessed all the very best qualities of a university professor — motivational, quick-witted, helpful, inspirational and approachable,” said one of her former graduate students, Karen Jelks, who became a faculty member in the UCD department of neurobiology, physiology and behavior.
“She provided a strong research program and stood among the best teachers at the university. In the end, Marion was someone we all hoped to emulate,” Jelks said.
Miller’s husband, Michael Sears, described her as wholly devoted to her students. “She lived for her university,” he said, “and always went over and above the call of duty.” Even after her advanced cancer was diagnosed in 2009, she continued working until close to her death.
In 2002, her extraordinary record of helping students succeed was recognized with the award for the Outstanding Mentor of the Year from the UC Davis Consortium for Women and Research.
Miller joined the UCD faculty in 1986, after she was recruited by Davis professor Jim Seiber. Born and raised in Scotland, she was finishing a postdoctoral fellowship in London at the time. She had recently met Sears at a party — “She heard me play a Scottish tune on the fiddle and we fell in love,” Sears said — but Miller did not hesitate to leave the United Kingdom for a career in the United States.
Sears followed. “I came to visit her and never went home,” he said. They married in 1986 and had two children — Sophie, who graduated from UCD in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture, and Thomas, who as a UCD student is following in his mother’s footsteps, with a major in environmental toxicology.
Miller had also followed her mother’s example. In an era when fewer women became professionals, Isobel Miller was a poultry adviser for the Scottish Ministry of Agriculture. Marion Miller’s late father, David, also was a farm adviser, and on summer holidays Marion and her sister, Grace, loved to fly with him in small planes on working trips to the Hebrides Islands.
“Both her parents, especially her mother, emphasized education. That carried over to her dedication and absolute focus on her students,” said Sears.
He related one of Miller’s favorite stories: In the family’s lochside family home in Connel Ferry, Scotland, when she was about 11 years old, she conducted an experiment in dilution with a bottle of her father’s whiskey. She carefully documented how much water could be added before the whiskey became undetectable.
“Imagine a child doing that! Measuring the proportions — that’s toxicology,” Sears said. “She never perceived any boundaries to the things she could do and places she could go.”
Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland (1976) and a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston (1982).
At UCD, Miller explored the effects of occupational and environmental exposures to toxic substances on the male reproductive tract.
In 2002, when California’s Proposition 65 required public notice of certain health risks, Gov. Gray Davis asked her to chair the state committee that evaluated chemicals for their reproductive hazards. When Davis thanked her for her public service, she put his letter away in a drawer — typical of her “not blowing her own trumpet,” said Sears.
Miller also served the public as regional director since 2002 of a major U.S. Department of Agriculture program called IR-4, which helps farmers who are growing specialty crops to use new pesticides safely.
Her other administrative appointments included: associate director of the University of California Toxic Substances Research and Teaching Program (2000-2010); chair of the UCD department of environmental toxicology (1998-2003); and member of the UCD Center for Environmental Health Sciences.
She also served on the Research Advisory Board for the UCD vice chancellor of research, the Academic Senate Committee on Research, the UC Systemwide Committee on Research Policy, and other committees.
When not working or caring for her family and students, Miller “was a very private and self-reliant person,” her husband said, but could also be the life of a party, telling jokes and stories. She also had an infectious sense of adventure and enjoyed physical challenges, such as cross-country running as a teenager and downhill skiing as an adult.
When her family vacationed away from their home in Winters, she loved “the tranquility of remote places,” Sears said, which they explored on foot and in kayaks.
On one such trip, the family discovered the small town of Timber Cove, on the Northern California coast. They bought a piece of land there and Sears, an architect, designed a cabin. With her penchant for “cozy places,” Sears said, Miller had him include little bed nooks.
The cabin is nearly finished, but before she could sleep in it, Miller died. Her ashes will be scattered in the Pacific Ocean nearby.
A memorial service is being planned; for information, contact Susan Kancir at [email protected]