Menus Subscribe Search

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30

usc-fountain

Fountain outside of Doheny Library at the University of Southern California, where Miller is pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. (Photo: Nick Grasu/Wikimedia Commons)

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Crafty Artist Who Wants to Understand Human Vulnerability

• April 02, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Fountain outside of Doheny Library at the University of Southern California, where Miller is pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. (Photo: Nick Grasu/Wikimedia Commons)

For the month of April we’re profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.

Kelly Miller, 24, Psychology

Kelly Miller came to psychology through literature. She started out at Pomona College thinking she’d major in English because of how much she loves being able to venture into a character’s mind. Thanks to a registrar error, however, her first class as a freshman at Pomona was an advanced seminar in clinical psychology.

It was just her, the professor, and three seniors. “I was intimidated but I stuck with it. We read scholarly journal articles—a first for me—learned basic clinical listening skills, and practiced with each other. To my amazement, I managed to do well. I felt as though I’d been thrown into the deep end of psychology and had managed to swim. Of course, I had no idea how much deeper the water could get.”

After that class, Miller realized that her passion was less for literary criticism than for exploring what she calls “the internal worlds of others,” and that psychology provides a systematic way to do so.

(Photo: Kelly Miller)

(Photo: Kelly Miller)

Today, she’s getting her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Southern California, researching how people use relationships to regulate their emotions. The questions she’s trying to answer, she says, include, “What happens in the body when people experience stress and seek comfort from parents or significant others? Why does going to others for comfort seem to work for some people but not for others? And how do difficult childhood experiences set us up to get sick later in life?” She also studies the physiology of worry—by measuring electrical activity in the brains of anxious children—as well as how anxiety and aggression can be passed from generation to generation.

Jessica Borelli, a psychology professor at Pomona and Miller’s undergraduate research advisor, said of Miller: “She has a razor-sharp intellect, has already conducted independent research that has the potential to change things in the field of relationship research, and is an extreme go-getter. She is a standout graduate student at USC despite being the youngest in her class. The National Science Foundation Fellowship is basically the biggest honor a graduate student in the sciences can get, and she got one on her first try.”

Miller considers the NSF grant her biggest professional accomplishment yet. “I continue to be blown away that the federal government saw enough promise in the way I think and work to make that kind of investment in me,” she said. “I’m motivated to show that their faith was well-placed.”

Her NSF project involves bringing young adults into the lab with their romantic partners and measuring things like their heart rate, breathing, cortisol, and oxytocin while they talk to each other about things like loss and ways in which they want their relationships to change. The resulting data, ideally, will determine why feeling vulnerable affects different people differently, and how someone’s entrenched beliefs about relationships explain why some people are better at both giving and receiving comfort.

“I’m most interested in why relationships are emotionally regulating for some people but dysregulating for others,” Miller says. “I hope that by gaining an understanding of why close relationships are protective for some people, I can make strides toward teaching all people how to have these protective relationships.” (Appropriately, she says that she and her lab mates are “freakishly close.”)

Miller realizes that she’s lucky to have found her passion. “I get intellectual stimulation in just about every stage of a research study,” she says, especially “the heart-pounding moment between writing the statistical syntax for your analysis and seeing what results you’ve achieved. While there are of course tedious moments, a great deal really is inherently stimulating—so much so that my work almost feels selfish at times.”

Outside of her studies, Miller enjoys doing improv comedy, as well as “crafty art projects, dancing in the pit at ska concerts, and going to lecture series at the Griffith Observatory.” The Southern California native plans on retiring to Claremont, her old college town, since Pomona offers free undergraduate classes to senior citizens. “I love that I could revisit literature, or try astronomy, or learn introductory Arabic. I’d like to spend my golden years exploring entirely new intellectual terrain, much like others want to retire to travel the world.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.

Avital Andrews

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.