Illustrated portrait of Katrina Miller, SM’18, PhD’23
(Illustration by Robert Ball)
Behind the byline

Physicist Katrina Miller, SM’18, PhD’23, revived her childhood love of writing to forge a career in science journalism.

Growing up in Mesa, Arizona, Katrina Miller, SM’18, PhD’23, adored writing and excelled in math, a facility that led her to pursue physics in college at Duke University. Later, while doing research in physics as a doctoral student at UChicago, she realized she could combine all her interests by writing about science for the general public. In June 2023, just weeks after completing her PhD, Miller began working as a New York Times Fellow. Her comments have been edited and condensed.

What’s it like to work at the New York Times?

It’s hard not to be starry-eyed. The world is your oyster there. I report a lot on physics and astronomy. But I also have a lot of flexibility to look for other stories, like on octopus nurseries or wildfires. It’s great to be an early-career journalist at a publication that has so many resources.

What was your dissertation about?

I was running an experiment at Fermilab called MicroBooNE. It’s a neutrino experiment. Neutrinos come in three flavors: electron, muon, and tau …

Really? They’re called flavors?

Yes, people make a lot of ice cream analogies. My dissertation was to measure the interaction rate of electron neutrinos interacting with the MicroBooNE detector. Years and years down the line, this measurement will be useful for answering big physics questions like, “Why is there more matter than antimatter in the universe?”

Did you already know that you wanted to become a science journalist?

I didn’t know science journalism existed when I started my PhD. I always loved to write. I was that kid with notebooks and notebooks full of terrible writing. I didn’t develop an interest in physics until I was in college. I took an astronomy elective and was like, “Oh, this is amazing!” I put my writing aspirations on a shelf.

The realization that I wanted to be a science journalist came to me in the first few months of the pandemic. It was when productivity standards were lower for everyone for a few months that I had time to stop and think, What is it that I want to do? I started by trying to get some clips under my belt. I did the myCHOICE internship at UChicago, a science writing internship, which taught me how to structure a news story. I did three articles for the Physical Sciences Division communications website, and I used those to apply to a mass media fellowship. I took a summer off and went to work at Wired. By the end, I decided, “I want to do this!”

What pieces are you especially proud of?

My first feature was about quantum gravity, and it’s the hardest thing I ever wrote. It was the first time that I really flexed my science communication muscles. I also wrote for Wired about my experiences as a Black woman in physics at the University of Chicago. When I pitched it, I really did not want to integrate my own story. It was my editor who pushed me, and I think she was right. That story made me realize that my favorite stories are the ones that intersect science and society. 

Tell me about the #IAm Project that you cofounded with your high school friend Rosie Hernandez.

The full title is #IAm Project for Women of Color in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. I’ve known Rosie since seventh grade, and we always said that we were the first women of color in science that we’d ever known. I remember the moment when I met a Black woman in my field. That didn’t happen to me until senior year of college, and it was so influential.

We started this scholarship and every year we raise $1,000 to just hand a check off to an aspiring woman of color going to a four-year university in a STEM field. We try to use our network to connect them to people in their fields who are at their universities so that they have some type of support network coming in.

We just had our fifth year, and we’re pivoting to a new model, putting the scholarship on hold and instead focusing on developing a cohort starting with freshmen women of color who are interested in exploring science or math or engineering and running a series of workshops with them every year so that, by the time they get to senior year, they have all of this knowledge and they have met several women of color STEM professionals and they also have each other. That’s our vision.

It’s lovely that you brought the program back to your old high school.

I wanted to stay local because I think a lot of national programs exist. We really wanted our program to be less flashy, more focused on those small impactful things that really make a difference in one person’s life. That’s something that I think I discovered in graduate school at the University of Chicago. You can put diversity on a poster, you can put it on the website, or do all these grand things to show people that you're being inclusive and diverse, but what really matters is those small interactions, those moments where someone is feeling excluded. Do they have someone to turn to? Those are the things that I think are the most important.

You’ve also said how proud you are to be a product of a public school system. Did that have an impact on how you and Hernandez envisioned the project?

My mom was a public school teacher, and she specifically wanted me to go to Westwood High School instead of the public school that was closer because she wanted me to have a diverse experience. My school was majority Hispanic, and there was a large Native American population. She wanted me to have a well-rounded experience. Looking back, I’m really thankful. I think I would have been a bit more prepared and a bit more challenged in a school that had more funding, but I also think that I would have been less prepared in terms of social interactions and things I value, like how to treat people, how to look at things inclusively, how to respect other people’s differences and cultures. I think that teachers really care at public schools. They work with what they have.

Are there writers that you look up to?

If I think about the writers I follow, it’s always the ones with a really distinctive voice—I can hear you saying this, even without your byline I know that this is you. I read a lot of Sheree Greer for inspiration. Dennis Overbye at the New York Times also has a very, very distinct voice. Another person whose work I follow is at Wired, Matt Simon. That's what I’m trying to develop. I want someone to read my work and be like, “That’s a Katrina Miller piece.” I’m still working on that.

What else would you like to work on as you build your writing career?

I think the news cycle will always be there, but for the latter half of my fellowship, I’ve talked with my editors about stepping away from that a bit and pursuing longer-form, more impactful stories. I think both are important. I never had the experience when I was freelancing in graduate school to work closely with a news cycle to put together a 700-word story in 24 hours. That was a muscle that I really started to flex during the first six months of my fellowship. For the last six months, I think I want to work more on going a little deeper. 

Updated 02.20.2024 to correct the capitalization and name of the #IAm Project and #IAm Project for Women of Color in STEM.