2016 Honoured Alumni of the Year Award - Chemistry
 

Dr. Dwayne Miller
Toronto, Ontario
Director, Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter, Hamburg
Co-Director, Hamburg Centre for Ultrafast Imaging and Department of Physics, University of Hamburg
Professor, Chemistry and Physics, Distinguished Faculty Research Chair and University Professor, University of Toronto

U of M Degrees:
BSc Honours Chemistry and Immunology (1978)

 

“When you get into science, it’s not a job – it’s a passion. When you go into research, it’s not for the money; it’s to make a difference. It can be hard to see your contribution in the whole scheme of things, but you’re engaged in the process and every once in a while you have some hint you might have done something worthwhile. There are very few occupations like this where you can make a contribution that will stand the test of time.”

 

What was your strongest memory from your time studying at the U of M, Faculty of Science?

I had a couple of epiphany moments that really helped set me on my current track. In the second year of my Honours program for Chemistry and Immunology, I was taking a new course in thermodynamics and I was really getting into understanding everything on a different level. I’d gone through the literature and looked up these old articles from the 1930s and earlier, and I went to talk to a wonderful professor named Robert Betts. He looked at me and said, “Mr. Miller, I think I am looking at a young person who knows more about this subject than I do.” That was a moment where I realized I could master material, even difficult topics at a high level if I put the effort into the problem. The other important influence was professor Bryan Henry, who took me on for an honours thesis project, and I got a publication out of it. So, there again I thought, 'Okay, I can do this!'

What opportunity during or after your time in the Faculty of Science helped launch your career?

At the end of my third year, I got a summer job as a research assistant at the Whiteshell Nuclear Reactor Establishment. The director, Graeme Strathdee, was leaving for vacation the day I showed up and assigned me to figure out a way to store radioactive waste that doesn’t involve vitrification*. I thought: well, radioactive materials come from minerals, so what if we were to put them back into minerals?  The librarian found some old articles about making synthetic minerals - cancrinite and zeolite - and I set off dutifully to synthesize these material and incorporate the most important elements, in non-radioactive versions, into these artificial minerals.

I got the machine shop to whip together a huge contraption that could do this at a super high pH. These things had to ‘cook’ over a week or so, with hoses hooked up for cooling. But, I didn’t realize that the glass I used could not hold super high sodium hydroxide concentration. Remember, I’m in a lab dealing with radio-active isotopes, so the labs don’t typically have drains in case of spills. So, I came back Monday, and it had eaten through the glass - this very caustic liquid slurry spilled out and ate through the tubing.  The lab was floating; the water had filled up to almost the top of the desk and the door was closed. It looked like a cartoon. I’m staring at this flooded lab and I hear a voice behind me – Strathdee was back and he said “Well Dwayne, what are you looking at so intently in the lab…?” And then it hit him.

In this case I wasn’t using radioactive materials, so they drained the place and he made me clean up the entire lab, of course. I was really worried about saving my material and effectively used a toothbrush to scoop up all the material. I was able to analyze the leach rates of Strontium and Cesium and found my experiment had orders of magnitude lower leaching than vitrification does, and vitrification is still being used today. I found I could convert the two most problematic radioactive elements back into minerals and they would be effectively back there forever.

So as a summer student, I came up with a new way of storing radioactive waste that was way better than what they’re using even now. My method is not as cost-effective but it may ultimately be the way to go.  That’s when I realized I really could do science – I had my can-do moment, that I could make a difference, and that’s when I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to graduate school’.

*vitrify - to convert into glass or a glassy substance by heat and fusion

What is the most fascinating and/or engaging experience you have had during your career in science?

Before, I certainly had no idea what a scientist was, did, or thought, or what was involved. I think that got me into starting Science Rendezvous [a free annual science festival/open house to engage the public with amazing hands-on feats of science and engineering]. When people come talk to the researchers at the front lines doing science, you get a sense of that – it’s a pretty different way of life and it’s a really rewarding career. Another great moment of my life was just last year when we took Science Rendezvous into northern Canadian communities. The kids loved it; they were so excited to try the hands-on experiments and other things I had set up to show how science is really done by “real” scientists. It was fantastic, and definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done.

What was it like when you designed the electron gun that captured motion at the atomic level, and world watched atoms during chemical reactions for the first time?

Making the first atomic movie, achieving this dream experiment of seeing atoms move in real time, was really something – it was a 14-year effort that came to fruition in a very short timeframe and it was one of my best personal experiences in science. We needed a shutter speed fast enough to capture the atoms and a super bright light source; we built this really compact, super-simple tabletop machine. Picture it: we’re in the lab, it’s 2 a.m., we’re watching the first shots and you start to see the pattern change, the atoms move. And then we look at the timing clock and see motions on a 100 femtosecond time scale, or less than 1 millionth of a millionth of a second. That was the first time ever that there was enough information to literally track atomic motions in real time. I often still think about that moment and it always brings a smile to my face.

Dwayne Miller

 

Dr. Dwayne Miller considers himself a movie director. But instead of highly paid actors, his subjects are tiny molecules and his films are made during ground-breaking scientific experiments. It was in 2003 that he was head of the research group that designed a new generation of electron guns, allowing them to realize a long-time dream to watch atoms in real time during the breaking or making of a chemical bond – the first to ever create a “molecular movie”. They also came up with the first method for performing surgery at the level of a single cell, thereby avoiding scar tissue. Miller is continuing his research as a co-founding Director of the Max Planck Institute for Atomically Resolved Dynamics in Hamburg Germany, splitting his time between the Max Planck Institute and University of Toronto.

Recognizing a need to promote the importance of science and make it accessible to the public, in 2008 Miller founded Science Rendezvous; now an annual, Canada-wide event that exposes the public to the importance of science.  More than 160,000 people and 4,000 volunteers in 30-plus cities are now involved. In between all this, Miller finds time to teach one course each year at the University of Toronto and has trained more than 70 grad students and post-doctoral researchers. He has published over 200 research articles, a book, and several seminal reviews. This work has been recognized by a number of prestigious research awards that include the Rutherford Medal in Chemistry and the ACS E. Bright Wilson Award, some of the highest honours in Chemistry. Miller has also served on editorial boards of some of the highest-regarded journals in chemistry and physics and as a director or board member at many high ranking academic research institutes.