Meet DEB: Joe Miller, SBS Program Officer

Basic Profile

Name: Joe MillerMiller_1

Education: PhD, Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison

Home Institution (Rotators):

Before arriving at the NSF I was a Research Scientist at the Center for Australian National Biodiversity Research at the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra. This is part of CSIRO and I worked closely with other researchers at the insect and vertebrate collections as well as people at Australian National University (ANU). I maintain a strong research connection with this group.

NSF Experience/History

I have been a rotator in the Systematics and Biodiversity Science Cluster for a year. I was supposed to start on October 1, 2013, but the “Shutdown” delayed my arrival for several weeks. I waited patiently for the shutdown to end so I could travel to Arlington. It was bit awkward as I stayed in Canberra an extra three weeks after my goodbye party.

Research Experience/History:

My career in biodiversity science had a fortuitous start. I was a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer (see below) in Madison Wisconsin. My experience in Ecuador had reawakened my interest in agriculture (see below). While wandering through the horticulture building I saw a 100 Sucre (old currency of Ecuador) taped to an office door. I knocked on the door and spent the next hour talking to David Spooner, a USDA potato taxonomist, who had just returned from collecting potatoes (Solanum) in Ecuador. That was my introduction to systematics as a career and I realized that was what I was looking for. I took a job washing dishes in the lab, started doing lab work and six years later had a PhD.

I studied the wild relatives of the cultivated potato to understand which species were domesticated and to work on the taxonomy. It was great but I wish I could redo the work with Next Generation Sequence data! Miller_2I owe my current career path in Acacia research to planetary science. After graduating I applied for a postdoc in Canberra and I learned that I was the runner-up. However a few weeks later I was asked if I still wanted the postdoc and gladly accepted. I later learned that the original awardee’s partner had just discovered the first exoplanet. They forwent Australia to look for more planets so I went to Australia to explore Acacia.

Competitions I currently work on:Miller_3

I work on the Systematics and Biodiversity Core programs, Phylogenetic Systematics and Biodiversity: Discovery and Analysis. I also work on the Genealogy of Life (GoLife) program and assist the BIO Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology program.

Q & A

Describe your current IR/D activities:

My research focuses on the systematics and biogeography of the Australian flora. For many years I focused on Acacia systematics but now have expanded to other groups such as Asteraceae, orchids, bryophytes and even Eucalyptus. Sometimes when I give a seminar I talk about the geopolitical advantage of being a botanist in Australia. The Australian botanical community is well organized. All vouchered plant specimens are databased and have been available online for several years. Another advantage is that the research community has an agreed upon taxonomy of the flora, the Australian Plant Census. Lastly the clade I study, Acacia, is nearly entirely (over 99.5% of the phylogenetic diversity) contained within Australia. My research has been focused on developing a strong phylogeny of Acacia and then by applying these wonderful datasets I have a great foundation for comparative studies.Miller_4

For the past few years my research focus has been to use these integrated phylogeny and spatial datasets to investigate biogeography. In particular with my research collaborators we have developed some new ways of identifying areas of paleo- and neoendemism by applying some advanced measures of phylogenetic diversity and phylogenetic endemism. We are applying these ideas on many datasets of the Australian flora. I am particularly interested in the use of these data in conservation planning.


For fun I play with phylogenetic visualizations. With collaborators at the Atlas of Living Australia I am using webservices to link spatial, environmental and trait data with phylogenies. These tools help us integrate data to bring an evolutionary perspective to biodiversity data so we can see patterns in complex data.

How did you come to be working in DEB?

Over the past few years I have become more and more interested in the integration of data (see above). We are in the midst of a revolutionary time where we have all this new data: phylogenies, spatial, environmental, trait etc… along with new visualizations that have created an opportunity to link it all together for better science. I do some development in this area and wanted to pursue it at a larger scale. The Genealogy of Life (GoLife) program ( has these same goals and I wanted to help make it happen.

Tell your awesome fieldwork adventure story:

I am fortunate to have done a lot of Acacia collecting in arid, outback Australia. One night is especially memorable as we camped way out there, half way between Perth and Alice Springs. I slept under an Acacia tree a couple of hundred miles from the nearest town. Although I lived in Australia eight years, I have no deadly Australian animal stories. The most beautiful place I have done fieldwork is the alpine areas of Tasmania. The most fun I had in the field was driving through Mexico collecting Acacia on my DEB grant.Miller_6

Recount a formative educational/mentoring experience (help us understand why you enjoy research/professional service/federal service:

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 80s in Ecuador. I worked on a small animal husbandry project and also did soil conservation and forestry work. Before this experience I was not interested in biology but it was a turning point for me.

Describe a job you had prior to working at NSF:

I am a farm boy. I grew up on a farm in eastern South Dakota so my early work experiences were working the land. The farm is in a transition area between crop and pastureland so there was, and still is, a mix of crops and animals. I spent all my summers during high school and college working with my Dad making hay, fixing fences, harvesting grain and whatever else needed to be done. Because of many varied experiences with them, I have a love/hate relationship with pigs. I still get excited when I see a field of oats and someday would like to own a tractor.

One thought on “Meet DEB: Joe Miller, SBS Program Officer

  1. Pingback: Have you thanked a taxonomist today? | DEBrief

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