Freda Miller

Climbing the Intellectual Mountain

She wants to contribute to human understanding in molecular genetics... and also head to some out-of-the-way places for a long hike.


Freda Miller is a Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics at University of Toronto. We asked everything from her advice to burgeoning researchers to her desert island list to give you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What do you like most about being a researcher?
Two things make me feel privileged to be able to pursue research as a career. The first is the opportunity to discover things that are currently unknown. Some of my colleagues compare research to putting together a puzzle, but I think it goes beyond that – it’s as if you’re solving a puzzle where only half of the pieces are there, and your job is to complete the puzzle in its entirety. Nothing is more exciting and gratifying than creating and slotting in a new piece of information.

The second driver is the chance to contribute to human knowledge. One of our primary imperatives as individuals is to leave the world a better place. There are many ways to do that, but I believe that adding to human knowledge and creating new insights is crucial for scientists. Additionally, there’s the possibility that something I discover might lead to the betterment of the human condition.

For example, our work could lead to the genesis of a new medical therapy or a better understanding of how our brain works in normal and pathological conditions. The opportunity to contribute is something we all strive for, and as a researcher, I feel like I get the chance to do this every day.

Of course, there are many day-to-day things about being a researcher that I also enjoy. I love the chance to work and interact with young and enthusiastic trainees, the opportunity to travel and interact with my scientific colleagues around the world, and the fact that I can reinvent myself scientifically as things move forward.

What advice would you give young researchers?
At the risk of sounding hackneyed, one of the most critical pieces of advice would be to follow your muse. If you love something, a particular area of science or set of questions, then pursue it. This leads to my second point, “don’t be afraid”. Excellent science is a result of taking intellectual risks; asking questions that someone else thinks are crazy and/or putting themselves out there with radical ideas.

My final point would be to find a talented, rigorous scientist who is pushing the boundaries and to look to that person for advice, guidance, and mentorship. There’s a reason why people in creative fields (and I would include the best science amongst those fields) look to others during their training – not to become the same person as their mentors, but to learn how to pursue excellence.

What are you reading right now?
I am a voracious reader of fiction. Two excellent books I read recently were by Canadian authors – Cory Doctorow’s latest science fiction novel, ‘Walkaway’, and Madeline Thien’s ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’.

What do you like to do for fun?
I sing in a choir; do a lot of cycling and hiking – preferably in the mountains – and travel to out-of-the-way places. For example, I was just in Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador. I’m also an avid martial artist – I have been practising taekwondo for many years now.

If you could do any profession other than your own, what would it be?
When I was young, I thought I was going to be a writer, and then I thought I would own a bookstore. But now, if I had the talent (and that is a big if), I would like to be a science fiction writer. As a perhaps more realistic alternative, I’d like to do something to enhance education opportunities for disadvantaged Canadian children.

Aside from things for your survival, what item would you most want to have with you on a deserted island?
An e-reader-like device loaded with my favourite music and books.

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