When Joan Whitten Miller remembers MIT, problem-solving and collaboration stand out in her mind. Those practices have also helped her stand out in her field. She is the chief of ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) and Massachusetts General Hospital as well as the chair of the ophthalmology department at Harvard Medical School.
Ignoring a high-school guidance counselor who warned that she’d be “at the bottom of the bell curve” at MIT, Miller flourished at the Institute and then attended Harvard Medical School, specializing in retinal disease. Her research led to the first two drug treatments for macular degeneration: photodynamic therapy (PDT) using verteporfin and therapy that inhibits vascular endothelial growth factor. She improved PDT, an old technology combining laser light and drugs to injure abnormal blood vessels, by enhancing selectivity and thus leaving many more healthy cells undamaged.
“At MIT you learn that you can attack any problem,” she says. “That’s been helpful in the medical field—and in life in general.” She holds 14 U.S. and Canadian patents.
At MIT, Miller rowed all four years. Her boat placed second at the Head of the Charles Regatta in 1978 and third in the nation in 1980. The collaborative skills that experience instilled in her have helped her build the largest eye study group in the world with MEEI and Schepens Eye Research Institute.
“It’s all about team play,” she says. The group is pursuing genetic and genomic research to identify targets for therapy in blinding eye diseases.
Miller has also taken on the problem of gender inequality in her field. “Residents in training for ophthalmology are now half women and half men, but there are only three women in the 95 leadership positions across the country,” she says. She has created opportunities for women, and today her department is 35 percent female, the highest proportion in the country. In 2010, Harvard Medical School awarded Miller the Joseph B. Martin Dean’s Leadership Award for the Advancement of Women Faculty.
Miller and her husband, John B. Miller ’74, SM ’74, PhD ’95, have three children (son John B. Miller is an ’05 MIT grad). They live in Winchester, Massachusetts, and have a summer home in her native Canada, where the family enjoys water-skiing, swimming, and rowing. There’s just one hitch, she says: “I have to get my husband to accept the fact that I want to be in the stern of the boat.”