Akilah Miller enjoys growing herbs like thyme, rosemary and basil at home. One day, the Cal State LA chemistry scholar intends to create her own sustainable garden.
Sustainability also inspires Miller’s professional ambitions, as she hopes to conduct innovative solar cell research that will reduce reliance on fossil fuels and contribute to a low-carbon future.
“With the global impact of climate change, I wanted to concentrate on the study of green energy and to help make the world a better and safer place to live,” Miller said.
This summer, the 25-year-old Inglewood resident will receive a Master of Science in Chemistry from the College of Natural and Social Sciences at Cal State LA. She’ll begin a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the fall.
“I would like to continue work focused on energy conversion and energy storage,” said Miller, whose goal is to become a research professor after achieving her doctorate.
Due to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the rising demand for energy across the world, she shared her conviction that there is a need for the development of new renewable energy conversion and storage technologies.
To address the growing need, Miller focused her graduate thesis on advancing dye-sensitized solar cells (DSCs) as alternatives to more commonly used cell types. Her goal is to improve the overall photoactive dye loading of traditional DSCs and to innovate high-efficiency solid-state DSCs.
“There are many types of solar cells, but most buildings and farms currently use silicon-based solar cells, which are very expensive to collect and manufacture,” Miller explained. “My research aims to make DSC solar cells more affordable, efficient and accessible to people.”
After graduating from Richard Gahr High School in Cerritos in 2014, Miller enrolled at UCLA and considered pursuing a career as a medical doctor. However, as she delved into her studies, she discovered her niche in scientific research.
Miller was fascinated by the opportunity to explore scientific concepts and principles, so she decided to study chemistry with an emphasis on materials science.
“I want to study all that chemistry has to offer,” she said. “And pursuing an academic degree allows me to perform scientific studies with more understanding and appreciation.”
While at UCLA, Miller participated in research studies targeted at improving the longevity of lithium-ion batteries and increasing solar cell efficiency.
Upon completing her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and materials science, Miller recalled, she learned about “competitive and exciting inorganic chemistry research” led by Yangyang Liu, an assistant professor at Cal State LA.
Professor Liu’s research primarily focuses on the design and synthesis of new nanomaterials for a variety of applications, such as gas storage and separation, solar energy harvesting and conversion, water purification and semiconducting.
Miller was thrilled to be able to join Liu’s research team once she was accepted into the chemistry graduate program through Cal State LA’s Bridges to the Ph.D., which is part of the Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) Programs.
The Bridges to the Ph.D. program aims to increase the number of Ph.D. researchers among the vast pool of untapped, underrepresented talent in the Los Angeles area. It is supported by a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in the National Institutes of Health.
“Cal State LA has a unique atmosphere that allows for competitive scientific research and a truly collaborative work environment,” Miller said.
“My best experiences have been discussing science and just hanging out with my lab mates who were and still are really great friends,” she continued. “Here at Cal State LA we are not pitted against each other in order to develop as chemists. We are taught to work together and teach each other.”
In addition to support from peers and her family, Miller credits Cal State LA faculty members for helping to advance her research and motivating her to pursue a doctoral degree.
She acknowledged Liu for her “endless support, guidance and, most importantly, faith in my skills as a chemist.”
Liu, likewise, praised Miller, noting: “While working in my lab for the past two years, Akilah developed new methods and materials for next-generation solar cell technologies. I was often impressed by her creative ideas and solutions.”
Miller also credits Krishna Foster, associate professor of chemistry, as “a great influence not only in developing my skills as a scientific writer but showing me how a Black woman chemist can move and operate in academia.”
A first-generation college student, Miller has a 3.8 GPA and is a recipient of a Lloyd N. Ferguson Chemistry Scholarship at Cal State LA.
As she looks forward to the next chapter of her academic journey, she was recently awarded a GEM Fellowship and a 3M Scholarship for her doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
The GEM Fellowship focuses on promoting opportunities for individuals from underrepresented groups who enter the industry at the graduate level in areas such as research and development, product development and other high-level technical careers.
The 3M Scholarship allows students to continue to develop the exceptional professional skills that make them the most sought-after innovators, inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders in industry and academia.
“I am very confident that Akilah will continue to thrive in her Ph.D. studies,” Liu said. “Akilah is an outstanding graduate student, and she sets an example for other students in my group. … She has also been a great student mentor for our junior group members and an excellent project leader.”
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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.
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