Indiana University's biology program has received the largest donation in its history. The school says it will use the nearly $4.2 million estate gift from former professor Carlos Miller to help attract and retain top faculty and graduate students.

April 17, 2014

News Release

Bloomington, Ind. — The estate of the late Indiana University Emeritus Professor of Biology Carlos O. Miller has bequeathed nearly $4.2 million to IU Bloomington's Department of Biology. It's the largest gift ever made to the department.

Miller was a faculty member at IU from 1957 until his official retirement in 1987, though he still maintained a laboratory and conducted research on campus until the time of his death in 2012. In the scientific community, he is recognized for his discovery of the class of plant hormones called cytokinins that cause plant cells to divide and differentiate and that remain a cornerstone of horticultural and plant biotechnology practices around the world today.

“This incredibly generous gift from Carlos Miller to the Department of Biology continues his strong record of supporting plant science at IU Bloomington,” said department chair Clay Fuqua. “The funds will ensure IU's ability to maintain its exceptional group of plant molecular biologists and enhance the department's ability to recruit the very best graduate students with interests in the molecular, cellular and developmental biology of plants and related organisms.”

As Fuqua referenced, the gift is not the first time Miller financially supported the department. Miller made the unique gesture in 1999 of endowing a chair for plant growth and development while still doing plant science as a part-time faculty member. He made a similar gesture in 2007 when he endowed a graduate student fellowship in plant developmental biology.

“I often joked that the Miller Chair was quite unique in that the donor was always around to keep the chair-holder honest,” said Mark Estelle, Distinguished Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, San Diego and a former IU Department of Biology faculty member who was the inaugural recipient of the Carlos O. Miller Chair in Plant Growth and Development. “It goes without saying that Carlos' support was instrumental to my program. The financial support provided by the chair allowed us to pursue some fairly risky strategies that ultimately had big payoffs.”

The gift, which will be invested and managed by the Indiana University Foundation, will do more than keep IU in a position to attract top plant molecular biologists like Estelle, said Roger Innes, an IU plant biologist and former department chair who worked with Miller. It also ensures Miller's memory will live on through the success of new students and the impact they might have on feeding a growing world population.

“His gifts to IU reflect his love for science and his commitment to nurturing the next generation of scientists. Carlos loved research and talking about science, especially with the graduate students in my lab,” Innes said. “This estate gift builds on his commitment to support graduate students and greatly expands our ability to recruit top students committed to a career in plant molecular biology research.”

Rick Amasino joined Miller's lab in 1977 as a graduate student and today is Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor at the University of Wisconsin. Amasino said that as a student, he quickly learned to time his lab work around a daily break that Miller took to make instant coffee by heating water in an Erlenmeyer flask with a Bunsen burner.

“I did not drink coffee, but the benefit was I knew there was an opportunity to talk to Carlos every day at 10 a.m., and talking to him opened up a different world for me,” Amasino recalled. “Most of the time we talked about things like politics, economics, sports, human nature. Even what Carlos had to say about sports was scientific. From my interactions with Carlos, it became clear that science wasn't about facts; it wasn't about a body of knowledge, although that is important. Science was a way of thinking about everything, and that was a revelation to me.”

Miller continued to work daily at IU following his official retirement. He was often seen carrying plant cuttings in vials, wearing a trademark Mr. Rogers-style sweater, with a pair of pruning shears tucked in the back pocket of his pants. His curiosity never waning, Miller even tested medications doctors prescribed him on plants in his lab.

“He tested all of his medications on plants, and some of them had interesting effects, such as causing certain plants to flower when they otherwise would not,” Amasino said. “This was just one of many examples of his great sense of curiosity, a great trait that too many of us lose as we get older.”

Craig Pikaard, IU's current Carlos O. Miller Professor in Plant Growth and Development, said Miller is indirectly responsible for his scientific career. It was a former student of Miller's at IU, the late Francis Witham, whose courses on plant physiology and plant hormones at Pennsylvania State University inspired Pikaard's interest in plant research and in attending graduate school to study biochemistry and plant physiology.

“Twenty-nine years later, being recruited to IU in 2009 to assume the Carlos O. Miller Chair, with my lab right next to Carlos' office, was like completing a circle, and it felt like it was meant to be,” said Pikaard, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator. “Carlos was a remarkable man, with a gentle, humble nature and wonderful sense of humor paired with an amazing intellect. The work for which he is best known — the discovery and characterization of the cell division hormone cytokinin — is amazing, even today. In addition to being great basic science, his discoveries made possible the regeneration of plants from tissue culture, which is a mainstay of modern horticultural practice and plant biotechnology.

“It is wonderful that Carlos' legacy will continue through his generous gift, enabling current Ph.D. students to pursue their passion for research and make their own discoveries. Nothing would please Carlos more,” Pikaard noted.

Larry Singell, executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the academic division the Department of Biology operates within, said the repercussions of Miller's love of IU and the department he worked in will have lasting effects. Miller's gifts to the faculty chair and the student fellowship now total over $5.4 million.

“Carlos had a great love of life, and a warm and generous spirit that will never be forgotten by those who had the privilege of working with him and learning from him,” Singell said. “Through this incredible gift, his spirit will continue to shine on the faculty and students who will carry his legacy of excellence into the future.”

Source: Indiana University

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