When she took her first animation class at the University of Rochester, Debbie Miller knew she found her calling.
But the timing was all wrong; it was 2008, and digital media wasn’t nearly as big as it is today. Then a college freshman, Debbie knew she would have a difficult time convincing her family that her future lay in fine arts. Instead, she followed her other love – science – and graduated with a degree in molecular genetics in 2012.
She worked in a physics and nanotech lab for a time in Buffalo, but disliked the solitude. “It wasn’t for me. I’m too extroverted to be in a lab,” she said. “I want to spread science.”
And so, she found herself back in retail. Up to two years ago, she worked at Starbucks, where she served coffee – and helped the stray student with their organic chemistry homework. To keep her mind sharp and prepare for a future graduate degree, she began taking classes at nearby SUNY Broome, initially with no particular goal in mind.
Public relations. Anatomy and Physiology. The Art of Science. Drawing. The more classes she took, the more her future path began to take shape – leading her back to an old dream.
New ways to learn
Her classes led her to a job opportunity as a professional tutor, focusing on anatomy and physiology, chemistry and organic chemistry. Years ago, as a student at Seton Catholic Central High School, she tutored students with autism, an experience she found highly rewarding.
Tutoring college students also fulfills a part of Debbie’s nature – giving her a key to the puzzle of her future. She quit her retail job and refocused on her academic side, which led her back to art.
Some concepts – whether it’s how bodily systems work together in anatomy, or processes in organic chemistry – are best explained through pictures and imagery. As a tutor, Debbie uses a smartboard to quite literally draw her students a picture, which aids their comprehension.
“I’m a kinesthetic learner and I know a lot of people have difficulty absorbing information in classrooms. I try to find those students who have that difficulty comprehending the material,” she explained. “The future of education is animation and video.”
In her classes and tutoring sessions, Debbie Miller came to a realization: She wanted to combine her two passions of hard science and art. At first, she considered a future in medical illustration, which led her to the Art of Science as well as an online drawing class. After exploring the field a bit, she decided that medical illustration was too rigid and traditional for her taste and instead looked into SUNY Broome’s certificate program in New Media Design.
The coursework would prove useful in other aspects of her life. Outside of SUNY Broome, Debbie works at Health Beat in Johnson City and is involved in the local standup comedy scene, both of which require her to post on social media. Adding a New Media Design certificate to her resume would show that she is well-versed in the current technology.
“Now, with today’s culture and the rise of social media – if you can grab someone’s attention quickly, that’s the way to really reach people,” she said. “What I really want to do is to take hard science concepts and make animations and graphics for education.”
She recently chatted with Art Professor David Zeggert about finding a graduate program in animation, which will take her one step further to her dream career. She has forged personal connections with a number of professors here, including Melissa Glenn in anatomy and Ed Evans in her initial public relations course.
“Every single professor was thorough. They care about your education and you as a person,” she said.
‘A little more together’
A conversation with Debbie Miller can take unexpected and delightful turns. She is honing her skills at oil painting, and makes animations of her pet hermit crabs, for example: “They all have their own personalities. They can live up to age 30 and grow to the size of coconuts,” she said with enthusiasm.
Her childhood hero was Bill Nye the Science Guy – a mechanical engineer who became a standup comic, and then achieved worldwide acclaim by explaining scientific concepts to children. It’s easy to imagine Debbie Miller – with her love of science and background in standup comedy – one day following in his footsteps.
As a tutor, Debbie draws on her own experience in other ways, and particularly enjoys working with students with disabilities or language barriers.
Many people don’t know that she struggles with depression and anxiety, and has attention deficit disorder (ADD) – realities for many students. In her early college years, she wasn’t the best student, but learned ways to cope: a Google calendar, extensive planning, a checklist. Some days, she still falls behind – and that’s okay.
“Every day is a new day. I use my own story to tell students to get their stuff a little more together,” she said. “You don’t have to get it all together – just a little more together.”