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Research Spotlight: Dr. William Miller

November 1, 2007

Last December, Assistant Professor of Biology William Miller was one of 4 recipients of the National Science Foundation’s Research at Undergraduate Institutions grant, totaling $600,000. This grant, of which Baker will receive $171,000, will support him, his colleagues and students as they collect, describe and analyze the DNA of tardigrades, small animals “0.2-0.5 mm in length, about the size of a dot made with a ‘fine’ mechanical pencil.” Translated, “slow walker,” these widely dispersed animals, “look like miniature caterpillars with five body segments and four pairs of clawed legs.”

Miller’s first encounter with a tardigrade, came over 40 years ago, as he was casting about for a little known organism to research for a “quick” master’s degree project. He managed to collect his specimens before he had to report for military service during the Vietnam War and had the good fortune to be stationed close to hospital facilities. Miller used the facilities’ microscope to finish his research before heading overseas.

Although Miller didn’t return to his tardigrades for many years, he maintained an interest in them, read widely and collected articles and citations. When he did return to research — studying specimens collected in Antarctica for his dissertation and later as a faculty member at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, Chestnut Hill, and Baker — those articles were essential for determining whether the “critters,” as he refers to them, were new discoveries or not.

During Miller’s research he came across a talk at the Missouri Academy of Science by then UMKC student Robert Lehman, who was also a Baker alumnus. Lehman had discovered a new species in the course of his thesis work. Since neither the talk nor the thesis is part of the peer-reviewed literature, this new species had not yet been confirmed and validated by the scientific establishment. Lehman was quite willing to have Miller and Baker students continue work on it and get it published in a peer-reviewed article.

The importance of the literature in this kind of work is the reason that part of the NSF grant is dedicated to building an exhaustive bibliography and database of the literature on tardigrades. There are currently 2,141 references in the bibliography dating back to 1758. Ultimately, the database will contain a scanned image of each article. The earliest citation is to an article — Index Animalum, by Carolo Davies Sherborn in a British Museum publication — which has been scanned into the database. Another important work was written by Lazzaro Spallanzani, who wrote, Opuscoli di Fisica Animale e Vegetabile, Volume 2, il Tardigrad, just as the American Revolution was ending in 1776. There are only 35 copies of Spallanzani’s original book, one of which is housed in the Clendening History of Medicine Library at the KU Medical Center.
A large number of these articles are available to Baker only via Interlibrary Loan. Fulfilling Miller’s requests has been challenging for a number of reasons: Some of the early publications are difficult to track down; some of the citations are incorrect; some contain abbreviations in Czechoslovakian, Finnish, and other languages that library staff are not familiar with; others can’t be loaned due to their rarity or fragile condition. All in all, the workload has been rewarding work for the library.

When asked whether the study of tardigrades will better humanity, Miller responds no. But, he adds, “it is an expansion of knowledge, it is training of students, it is development of critical thinking to ask questions about the unknown and then seek answers. In the process we may find the answer to cancer, or space travel, or crop infestation. When you study the unknown you do not know what you may find.”

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