As he prepares to leave his nearly 20-year career at UNC for a position at the Ohio State University in March, Bill Miller, MD, PhD, MPH, says several memories stand out. He first arrived on the Chapel Hill campus in 1994 as an MPH student and a year later became a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar. The next year, he began weaving elements of this program into the curriculum that became the now popular master’s of science in clinical research or MSCR degree at UNC.
“It’s humbling to think that I have taught a large proportion of the clinical researchers on campus,” says Miller, who has taught the degree’s clinical epidemiology course since 1996.
Then there was the time Cosmopolitan Magazine, a very popular women’s publication, interviewed him about how chlamydia, left untreated, can cause infertility.
“I proudly told my sister-in-law I would be quoted in Cosmo, but she wasn’t impressed,” Miller says with a laugh. “When she found out it was a story about chlamydia, she said ‘why didn’t you talk about something more serious like HIV?’ I said, ‘having untreated chlamydia is serious because it makes you more susceptible to HIV infection.’”
Studying HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases has been Miller’s clinical and research focus since he realized neurology was not ultimately what he wanted to do while earning an MD-PhD at Johns Hopkins. A couple of years later, he traveled to Chile during his residency, where he studied typhoid.
“That’s when I realized how much I liked geographic medicine, one of the terms for what is now referred to as global health,” Miller says. “And infectious diseases seemed to be the specialty that allowed you to have the most impact around the world.”
Miller has embraced this impact – as a clinician seeing patients in UNC’s Infectious Diseases Clinic; as a researcher serving as a senior investigator at UNC-Project Malawi; and as an educator teaching in UNC’s School of Medicine and Gillings School of Global Public Health. He also directed UNC’s Training Program in Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV.
“Bill is a fantastic colleague and friend,” says Myron Cohen, MD, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases. “He is a truly inspired teacher and a gifted scientist.”
Becoming A Physician-Scientist
During the summer in between his sophomore and junior years of high school, Miller worked in a National Science Foundation training lab. One of the scientists he met in the lab had earned an MD and a PhD. This concept intrigued Miller.
“I thought to myself ‘wow, he’s got both degrees,’” Miller says. “I was drawn to research more than I was to clinical care. But it seemed to me that MD’s asked better research questions and PhD’s did research better. Bringing both of those types of minds together means you create a group of people who can contribute at a higher level. It is a hard road, but it is doable.”
Miller earned his MD at Johns Hopkins. His fourth year of medical school was also his first year of his PhD there. Once he finished his PhD, he then switched back into clinician-mode to complete his internship and residency. The months in Chile during residency sparked his interest in global health. He completed his fellowship in infectious diseases and international health at Duke and Muhimbili Medical Center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This taste of working in Africa continued when Miller came to UNC. In the early 2000s, he started working in Blantyre, Malawi, investigating malaria and HIV. He also taught epidemiology at the Malawi College of Medicine. Then Miller began helping with data analyses on projects at UNC-Project Malawi in Lilongwe. Since 2004, he has been going there routinely, and most of the time, he has traveled with UNC-Project Malawi’s U.S. Director Irving Hoffman, PA, MPH.
“I have been collaborating with Bill in the areas of HIV and STI’s for the past twenty years – domestically in rural health departments across North Carolina and at Fort Bragg, and then globally in countries such as Malawi, Bangladesh, Russia, Vietnam, Ukraine and Indonesia,” Hoffman says. “Bill is the perfect research and public health partner. Not only is he a superb epidemiologist and research methodologist, but he also understands people everywhere with the expression of empathy and patience. He is extremely generous with his time to help other faculty and students. He will be missed, and has unique skills and personal qualities that will be impossible to replicate.”
Domestically, Miller’s presence on campus has had a profound influence on students.
“Bill has been an integral part of the Department of Epidemiology, Gillings School of Global Public Health, through his sustained commitment to teaching, research, and student mentoring,” says Andrew Olshan, PhD, Chair of the Department of Epidemiology. “Bill provided a critically important bridge to the School of Medicine and Division of Infectious Diseases. He has been an exceptionally good citizen, always said yes to any request, with a smile on his face. He will be greatly missed.”
Off to Ohio But Still Connected to UNC
Miller and his wife Clara Lee, MD, MPP, Associate Professor of Surgery and the Director of Research in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at UNC, will both head to the Ohio State University. Miller will be the Chair of the Division of Epidemiology in OSU’s College of Public Health.
“I am going to miss my students and collaborators at UNC. I owe this opportunity in Ohio to them,” Miller says. “While I am a teacher at heart, I have taken on too much teaching at UNC. Teaching is fun when you have the time to do it well, but not when you feel you can’t give it the time the profession deserves. My goal at OSU is to teach less than I have at UNC. But I will still teach.”
Miller is also looking forward to more time spent conducting research. His research interests include HIV and STDS, primarily the epidemiology and prevention of acute HIV infection. Despite moving to Ohio, he will maintain a connection to UNC, through advising three PhD students and working with UNC-Project Malawi. Miller says there are junior faculty from OSU already working in the country who have interfaced with colleagues at UNC-Project Malawi. Kathy Lancaster, PhD, who focused her dissertation on the role alcohol plays in HIV infection among sex workers in Malawi, values the mentoring she received from Miller.
“At our first meeting, I was immediately impressed by his commitment to his students and thoughtful consideration of how my involvement in his studies could contribute to my development as an investigator,” Lancaster says. “He has positively affected the professional lives of so many and his nuggets of wisdom are affectionately known as “Billisms” around campus. I have often thought of Bill as a triple threat; he is a strong investigator, an engaging professor, and dedicated mentor. He exemplifies the academic-investigator skills that I hope to one day possess. His presence on UNC’s campus will be greatly missed, but we are all eager, especially those part of UNC Project-Malawi and Vietnam, to continue our collaborations together.”