In this interview with Prof. Deborah Yalen, Emmie Miller (B.A./B.S., 2012) talks about her fascinating research, her career plans, and how CSU helped her to pursue her dual passions for history and science. She is a PhD candidate in the Program for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota.
What is your program of study at the University of Minnesota, and what research questions are you pursuing?
I am a PhD candidate in the Program for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. I’m interested in understanding how eighteenth-century naturalists—the zoologists, botanists, and geologists of the past—conceptualized the Arctic as a place that was simultaneously barren and uninhabitable and yet populated by plants, animals, and humans. The questions I’m asking revolve around where ideas about specific environments come from, especially when newcomers approach an unfamiliar place with preconceived notions that do not match the reality of their experiences. In the 1700s, the line between what is science—fact—and myth—fiction—is not as clear as we think it is today, and this definitely informs the historical actors I’m investigating. Explorers in the Arctic are a window into understanding how science and myth are often not as separate as we think they are. Given the changing status of the Arctic and the Antarctic, it is important for us to understand how these places meant different things to humans in the past, just as they will mean different things to us in the future. Also, the way that these naturalists thought of the Arctic, as a place impossible to conquer because of its harshness, brings to the light the tragedy of the twenty-first century Arctic as a vulnerable, endangered landscape.
I think the best thing about graduate school and PhD studies is that you have so much freedom to think, question, and pursue your own interests. My interests have ranged from twentieth century model organisms to anatomical dissections of animals in the seventeenth century to the exchange of medical knowledge in the early eighteenth century. This intellectual wandering and freedom comes with its challenges, of course. It can be difficult as a young scholar because you have less guidance from more experienced mentors, but at the end of the day, your mistakes and your accomplishments are entirely your own. While scary at times, it is actually very liberating to control your own projects; it’s also very gratifying to know that you and your intellect are responsible for accomplishing such seemingly mammoth undertakings, like finishing your comprehensive exams, giving your first paper at a conference, or leading your first undergraduate lecture!
Ideally I would like to find a job at a liberal arts college. Despite the idea of the solitary historian hiding away in a library, it’s really a job that connects you with people! Teaching is by far the most fulfilling of these interactions, but I also love the scholarly community, so it would be great to end up in a teaching-heavy position at a college or university. However, the challenge of breaking into academia in recent years has required me to think about other things that I would like to do. Teaching is high on my list of back up positions, but I also love working with people more generally, and I’d be interested in administrative work at a university, but I’m also open to jobs outside of academia, or tangential, including College Board and other companies that are geared towards preparing high school students for higher ed.
How did your work in History at CSU help prepare you for your post-graduate studies? (Here you might also mention how you managed to get a post-graduate internship at the Smithsonian, and what you did there).
My work in History at CSU prepared me, on the one hand, for the intellectual rigor of graduate work. More importantly, and I think this is probably something special about the History department at CSU, my experience at CSU taught me a lot about what healthy mentoring relationships look like. The faculty at CSU were so supportive; that was a particularly positive experience. I also helped run the History Club under Dr. Gudmestad, and I still love participating in similar groups, but on a larger scale. My work with the History Club definitely prepared me for my work as the leader of the graduate student group associated with the History of Science Society, for instance—and we’re managing hundreds of people.
While my experience at CSU was definitely formative, I found that working outside of the university also helped me to prepare for graduate school. After I graduated, I did a 5-month internship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of Natural History. I was interested in environmental history, so when I decided to try for an internship, I looked through their listings and found a group that was hiring interns to help connect real plant specimens, sometimes over a hundred years old, to the contexts in which they were discovered. I ended up telling the stories of those plants, which for a historian who focuses on people, was a pretty cool thing to do. I think the key to securing an internship at the Smithsonian, and ultimately something that transfers to grad school and other applications, is to be very specific about what it is that you’re looking for—be picky! In the case of the National Herbarium, it really was a very good fit for my interests in animals and plants in history. I never completely got out of the expedition and natural history mindset, apparently, because I’m still doing similar research. The experience was also great for cultivating a sense of independence regarding projects. It also showed me just how cool public history can be!
Were there any specific experiences at CSU that especially influenced your career choices? Did any particular faculty in the History Department have an impact on your intellectual development and career path?
For me, one of the most influential aspects of my experience at CSU was engaging with so many scholars doing environmental history. I left CSU knowing I wanted to study environmental history, and I specialized that interest by approaching environmental history using the methods of the history of science. There were several faculty members who I feel particularly indebted to and who I think of often! The first of these really fantastic scholars is Mark Fiege, who advised me and told me about the history of science (most people don’t know this is a thing!). I recall taking my first environmental history class with Dr. Fiege and experiencing a revelation in the very first day of lectures, as I discovered environmental history and its usefulness in conceptualizing so many of our current environmental issues. I distinctly remember reading Bill Cronon’s “Kennecott Journey,” and trying to wrap my head around what environmental history was! There were many others, as well. I benefitted from getting to know Adrian Howkins, Thaddeus Sunseri, and Nathan Citino, who all challenged me in the best possible way. For instance, Dr. Citino showed me that history is really about critical thinking and analysis; his Middle Eastern history course persuaded me to go to graduate school in History because it was so difficult! That course was harder than all of the courses I took for my biology degree, with the exception of organic chemistry. It may be counterintuitive that these challenges brought about the realization that I wanted to continue my studies—torturous as they are—but graduate school is geared towards thirsty, driven learners, and that’s absolutely a part of me that was cultivated at CSU and in classes run by the fantastic faculty members of the History department.