Dr. Amy Millen joined the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health as Research Assistant Professor in January 2005. She was appointed to Assistant Professor in March 2007 and promoted to Associate Professor in August 2013. She earned her BS in biology from Bucknell University, followed by her PhD in nutritional sciences, with an emphasis in population health, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her primary training is in the field of nutritional epidemiology. After completing her PhD, Amy spent two and a half years at the National Cancer Institute as a Cancer Research Award Training (CRTA) Fellow in the Risk Factors Monitoring and Methods Branch. She has worked on a number of diverse research projects that have focused on the role of nutrition in diabetes, ophthalmology, and cancer. She has extensive experience with dietary assessment methods and analyzing diet and disease relationships in varied, large population datasets.
I first met Dr. Millen in college, when we were cast opposite each other in a one act play. Although our acting careers did not pan out, I could not be happier to have Dr. Millen contribute to Advice For My Daughter.
What do you do exactly?
I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health in the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo. My research focuses primarily on how nutrition influences chronic disease of aging. I want to better to understand the role of nutrition in extending functional years of life: years lived as healthfully and independently as possible. In addition to being a researcher, I teach classes, advise graduate students and participate as a member of different departmental and school committees.
Why did you choose your field?
I was a biology major in college and became interested in how nutrition influences health. I entered a PhD program in nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin (UW) and had the opportunity of a short research rotation working with Dr. Julie Mares, a nutritional epidemiologist at UW, who studies nutrition and age-related eye disease. She introduced me to the field of public health and epidemiology and has remained a life-long friend and mentor. In addition to being a wonderful PhD advisor, she has also been a role model as a working mother.
What skills and characteristics are needed to be successful in your field/chosen profession?
For my field, you need have a sound foundation in science and math. You need to be able to think critically and to be able to communicate well in writing. I feel that perseverance, hard work and having a thick skin are also essential skills. Researchers often experience frequent rejections regarding grant and paper submissions. You are constantly pitching research proposals and ideas to colleagues. You have to know how to gracefully receive constructive feedback and have the willingness to revise your work and ideas while still moving forward towards some larger goal. In my field of work, one also needs to have good people skills and the ability to work in teams. My research involves studying data collected on large groups of people, usually thousands of people. Researchers have to conduct this work in teams because one person, or even a small research team, could not conduct these studies alone. Data collection can take years, and many of these studies (prospective longitudinal cohorts) are followed for decades (e.g., the Women’s Health Initiative). I enjoy working with a diverse group of scientists and get energy from learning from other people on multidisciplinary teams. My job also requires me to have multitasking skills as you have to balance life as a mother, wife, researcher, teacher, and advisor in addition to the other service work that you are asked to do in this job. Good time management and organizational skills help me to prioritize what to work on and to ensure that I’m as efficient as possible so that I can get home in the evenings to have dinner with my family.
What advice would you offer to someone who is starting in your field or expresses interest in your profession?
I would suggest that they get a master’s degree and then work for a while in their field of interestbefore deciding on a career as an academic; experience working with different people and with people who have different perspectives. I went straight into a PhD program from undergraduate and I often wish I had gotten a master’s degree first and worked. I think it helps young adults reflect more on what they want to do and provides them the time to understand if the area of work they hope to pursue is truly a good fit. And, if you are planning on being a researcher, working in your field with a master’s degree helps you better understand what area of inquiry you might want to pursue in your PhD program. Things have worked out well for me, but I often wonder if I would have taken a slightly different path had I slowed down a bit to reflect more on my journey.
What do you enjoy most about what you do? What are the challenges you face?
I enjoy working on research questions with public health relevance. I truly enjoy myself when I am looking at data and trying to describe what the results of my study mean. I just wish I had more time each day to focus more on this! One challenge is just not having enough uninterrupted time. I often have to close my office door and ignore knocks from others to get work done! One of the things I enjoy most about my job is working with students. I love mentoring graduate students and helping them work on research projects and write papers. I love to see them develop into junior scientists. To me, this is the most rewarding aspect of my job.
What is one motto that has served you well in your life and career? Why?
In the end I try to remember that I’m lucky I have a job where I get the opportunity to learn every day and to grow and contribute in what I hope is a meaningful way to society. My job challenges me. Sometimes this is frustrating, but when I look at how I’ve developed over time, it’s also motivating. I also think it’s important to also put things into perspective. A job is also just a job and in the end, being healthy and having a happy family and strong marriage is important. Sometimes I have to sit myself down and tell myself that what seems like a “big work issue” today isn’t such a big deal in the broad scheme of life. Living in the moment as much as possible is where I try to be, and remembering that children grow fast and time flies by and if we don’t make ourselves take time to pause no one is likely to remind us!
Thanks, again, to Dr. Millen for contributing her advice to this project!
For a list of her publications, click here.