A mind for the brain
Originally from Iowa in America’s rural Midwest, Karla Miller began her academic career as a major in creative writing before winding up as a Professor of Biomedical Engineering.
Karla has been in Oxford for 18 years at the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging (WIN) and is an energetic champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI).
What was your route to Oxford?
My undergraduate studies were at the University of Illinois. In America, we specialise late and I changed my university major several times. I started as a creative writing major before taking a gap year when I worked as a receptionist in Chicago. It gave me time and perspective to think through what I really wanted to do. When I went back to university, I moved into neuroscience and finally to computer science.
That is quite a move from creative writing...
It might seem like quite a strange set of decisions, but there was definitely an arc. In one of my cognitive neuroscience courses, we learned about the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to pick up activity in the brain. It was a very new technology and I realised a lot of the research was on the engineering side. My next step was graduate school in electrical engineering at Stanford, in California, which has an amazing group of researchers developing MRI technologies. After finishing my PhD, I took up a post-doc position in Oxford and have been here ever since.
Having spent the first ten years of my research career working on the technology side, I've spent the last ten years returning to neuroscience.
All those different experiences of my education have prepared me for where I am now. I really do believe that education is about learning how to learn, not necessarily about the specific topics you study
What changes did you experience when moving from Iowa to California and then Oxford?
Coming from Iowa to California was my first experience of a different culture – as different from the Midwest as you can get and still be in the US. I loved California – it’s a very outdoors culture, and I love nature. I did a lot of road trips, wild camping, snowboarding and incompetent surfing.
When I came here, I immediately fell in love with Oxford for totally different reasons. The sense of history that permeates everything here couldn’t be more different to California. It’s special.
But, just as important, I found the Centre to be a very welcoming environment. The leadership was young and energetic and it was a really vibrant, collaborative atmosphere.
Can you explain your work in neuroscience?
The Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging (WIN) is one of the world-leading centres in brain-imaging technologies. People like me design new scanning techniques for studying the brain, and other researchers in our centre use these methods to learn how the brain works, and how it changes with disease.
The main technology I work with is MRI, which looks at how water interacts with its environment. Because water is everywhere, you can use it to ask a dizzying range of questions. To study brain activity, you can look at water in blood, which surges to regions in the brain that are active. You can also look at how water diffuses to measure the connections in the brain, which then enable different brain regions to ‘talk to each other’ as a network.
How did you become involved in spearheading EDI at the institute?
As these things go, it didn’t start as a deliberate decision, but two things started happening at WIN simultaneously.
WIN Pride, an LGBTI+ network, started up. I had always considered myself an LGBT ally, but I realised that my allyship rarely manifested itself in any meaningful action.
Around the same time, some of the women engineers and physicists at WIN started building a community. We’d all experienced being the only woman in the room at times, but realised that there were a lot of us scattered across different research groups.
Putting those two sides together – one a community that I am part of, the other where I was keen to be an ally – made me realise that inclusion is not something that happens accidentally, and we should be more deliberate and strategic about this. WIN thought of itself as being inclusive, but I think that was only really true for a subset of our staff and students – I wanted to change that.
How are you putting this into action?
WIN’s work in EDI is based around three pillars: building communities; education; and strategic action.
Building communities is about looking after people who are here, to make our workplaces more supportive and suitable for them.
Education is about us all learning more about other people’s motivations, background and struggles, particularly those that we don't necessarily see or think about very much. It’s the first step to being a good ally.
Strategic action is about investing major effort towards initiatives to actually achieve meaningful change. The difficulty with strategic action, particularly with limited human and financial resources, is that you simply can’t do everything.
What would you say you’ve learned from your work in EDI?
In EDI, it is easy to be very publicly performative, or to take on too many things, and achieve nothing. Many groups, who have been repeatedly promised change that has not materialised, are rightly sceptical. Others worry that it is a zero-sum game – that meeting the needs of one group must come at the expense of another. I’m mindful of both views, but I also hope they are wrong.
So we’ve tried to be very deliberate, to bring all our colleagues along with us, and to focus on meaningful action that fits our sphere of influence. It isn’t an easy balance, but I genuinely think change can and will happen.
Find out more about EDI at the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging