Chemistry welcomes Evan Miller

Portrait of Evan Miller.

Evan Miller knows a good thing when it he sees it. Some native Californians choose to head far away for college or grad school and come home with a renewed appreciation of the Golden State. Others seem to know how good they’ve got it and don’t see any need to leave. Miller, a new chemistry assistant professor, falls into the latter group. He has created for himself an enviable academic background without ever leaving the state.

Miller was born in Long Beach in 1981. His father, a self-employed steel-rule die maker, soon moved the family to Atascadero, a town midway between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo on Highway 101. Says Miller, “My folks wanted to move to the country. Since my dad did custom work for printing and circuit board companies, he could do his work from anywhere. We lived near the city limit, and my mom worked in town as a public school teacher.”

Miller graduated from Atascadero High School in 2000. The school had an experiment- based chemistry lab course, and like many other College of Chemistry professors, he was first drawn to chemistry by his high school lab experience.

For college, Miller chose a little-known gem, Point Loma Nazarene University, a liberal arts college with 3,500 students. Tucked behind Sunset Beach National Park in San Diego, the campus is known for its spectacular ocean views and a popular local surf break. Miller marvels that he was able to graduate with a degree, given the proximity to world-class beaches.

He is quick to point out Point Loma’s small but excellent chemistry department. “Our chemistry department had something like four full-time chemistry faculty and a strong tradition of undergraduate research. We didn’t have a lot of resources, but we did a lot with what we had.”

Miller worked with organic chemist Vic Heasley and graduated in 2004 with degrees in chemistry/biology and philosophy/ theology. While at Point Loma he met a fellow student, Liz Palmquist. They married in 2005 and now have two young children.

“When I came to Berkeley,” says Miller, “I was drawn to organic chemistry and chemical biology, but I had no idea about cutting-edge topics in chemistry, which is what made the chemical biology program so great for me. I was able to do rotations in a couple of labs before joining Chris Chang’s lab in the spring. This was where I first discovered the idea of building chemical dyes to look at cells.”

Chris had also arrived in 2004, and it was so exciting to be part of a new lab. I wrote my thesis on making chemical indicators for the reactive oxygen species hydrogen peroxide to study the signaling roles hydrogen peroxide can play in cells.” In 2009 Miller moved back to San Diego for his postdoc. Unlike his Berkeley experience, where he helped start a lab group, at UC San Diego Miller moved into the established group of Roger Tsien. Tsien had shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, and his lab was flourishing.

During his postdoc, Miller developed new fluorescent sensor molecules to measure transmembrane potentials in neurons and other cells. These fast changes in membrane potential, or action potentials, are an integral part of how brain cells communicate—or, in diseases like Alzheimer’s, fail to communicate. The sensors are based on controlling fluorescence via a process called photo-induced electron transfer.

Fluorescence is a phenomenon that occurs when electrons, excited by light, relax back to lower energy states, releasing energy as photons. In the case of Miller’s sensors, a fluorescent molecule is linked to another molecule that can, under the right conditions, drain away the excitation energy and quench the fluorescence.

“The trick,” says Miller, “is to make the voltage potential across the cell membrane act as a switch which turns the electron transfer, and therefore fluorescence, on or off. In its normal state, a neuron’s resting membrane potential accelerates electron transfer and quenches fluorescence. But if the neuron is active, the membrane potential is less negative and the electron transfer is allowed, and you see a signal from your fluorescent sensor.”

Miller returned to the Berkeley chemistry department in 2013 as an assistant professor to develop new chemical fluorescent sensors. He has a joint appointment in the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology and is affiliated with the campus’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

His research has attracted funding from sources interested in both basic research and fighting disease, including a recent Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship and new investigator awards from the March of Dimes and the Alzheimer’s Association.

“It’s great to be back at Berkeley. Being part of the College of Chemistry as well as the MCB department is really the perfect mix, for me, of chemistry and biology interacting with one another.”