Biological sciences PhD student takes top grad student award

Conservation geneticist Joshua Miller awarded Governor General's Gold Medal for outstanding academic achievement at the graduate level.

Kristy Condon - 19 November 2015

You could say that science is in his DNA.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Joshua Miller obtained his bachelor's degree in biology from University of California (Santa Cruz) in 2008. He then took on an internship at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. for a year, participating in several conservation genetics projects involving ostriches and seabirds from the tropics, before moving to Edmonton to pursue graduate studies.

"I was very honoured when I found out I had won the award. It is hard to express the gratitude I feel for such recognition."

"I was really interested in working with David Coltman on investigating the genetic basis of horn size in bighorn sheep and what influence human harvest may have had," he explains. "Broadly, my research focuses on using genomic technology to aid wildlife conservation."

After just one year of a master's program, he transferred into the PhD track for a deeper dive into his chosen field. Over the course of his doctoral studies, Miller published an outstanding 13 peer-reviewed journal publications-in 10 of which he appears as first author. "This body of work has already been cited 179 times, and most of his papers appear in top quartile ranked academic journals," says Miller's supervisor David Coltman (biological sciences).

One of Miller's most groundbreaking papers detailed the first ever whole-genome sequencing of bighorn sheep. "This was a landmark accomplishment and marks the completion of one of the very first complete genome sequences of a wildlife species," adds Coltman. The work could help to better understand population dynamics of Alberta's official animal, whose big horns make them popular targets for trophy hunting.

Miller visiting one of the field sites he worked in at Ram Mountain, Alberta. The team hiked the mountains in search of groups of bighorn sheep to observe the animals' interactions. Photo: Jessica Haines.

Miller's exceptional academic performance as a UAlberta grad student earned him the top scholarships and awards available at the University of Alberta and nationally. In addition to an NSERC Vanier Scholarship, one of Canada's most prestigious graduate awards, Josh was awarded the University of Alberta Andrew Stewart Memorial Graduate Prize, the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, and the Dorothy J. Killam Memorial Graduate Prize.

Most recently, Miller is the recipient of Governor General's Gold Medal, which recognises the doctoral graduate who achieves the highest academic standing at the University of Alberta. "I was very honoured when I found out I had won the award. It is hard to express the gratitude I feel for such recognition," he says.

Part of Miller's responsibilities during his graduate studies included taking the lead in supervising an undergraduate honors research student. "The education I received at the University of Alberta was multifaceted. Not only did I get training in research methods, but the program at the U of A also allowed me to gain a variety of teaching experiences," he says.

These experiences included community outreach activities with Let's Talk Science and participation in regional science fairs. Miller also served on several committees in the Department of Biological Sciences, including terms as vice-president and co-president of the Biology Graduate Students Association.

Now graduated, Miller is continuing his research in conservation genomics through a post-doctoral position at Yale University working with giant Galapagos tortoises, using genomic methods learned over the course of his PhD to identify individuals that can be part of a captive breeding program.