Warren F. Miller Jr. Biography - Grew Up in Chicago, Motivated by Military Opportunities, Deepened His Interest in Computers, Activism Brought Rewards
Nuclear engineer, educator, and consultant
Growing up when the United States was still a racially segregated society, Warren F. Miller, Jr., learned a lot about the difficulties encountered when a member of a minority breaks barriers by entering a field traditionally dominated by whites. He broke many of those barriers himself, first by becoming one of a very small number of African Americans to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point during the early 1960s, then by going on to become one of the nation's most respected engineers in the complex field of nuclear engineering. However, Miller was concerned with more than the personal success and public recognition that he received for his accomplishments. Throughout his career he has promoted workplace diversity and encouraged young African Americans and women to seek careers in engineering, science and technology.
Grew Up in Chicago
Warren Fletcher Miller, Jr., was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 17, 1943, one of five children of Warren F. Miller, Sr., and Helen Robinson Miller. His father worked as a milkman, delivering dairy products to homes in the Chicago area, and his mother worked as a secretary at the University of Chicago. His parents did not want to call their son "Junior," so, in order to distinguish him from his father, they gave him the nickname of a family friend, Peto. Warren Jr. would remain "Pete" to those who knew him for the rest of his life.
Growing up during the 1940s and 1950s, Miller attended an all black inner city school. He enjoyed his classes, especially science and math, and was such a good student that he was promoted directly from third to fifth grade, skipping fourth grade. In 1955, during the summer after fifth grade, Miller got a shocking and painful lesson in racism when one of his classmates, a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till, was murdered by racist whites while visiting his mother's relatives in Mississippi. Till's murder—and the fact that the white men who killed him were never punished—energized the civil rights movement.
Miller excelled throughout his school years, inspired by the many excellent black teachers who taught at his segregated school. He especially valued his high school physics teacher in whose class he began to develop his love of advanced science. Along with his studies, he worked summers and every Saturday during the school year, helping his father deliver milk. He also enjoyed baseball and played on his high school baseball team.
Motivated by Military Opportunities
Boys entering Miller's Chicago high school were given the choice of physical education classes or participating in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). ROTC is a military training program sponsored by many colleges and high schools. Because Miller had skipped a grade, he was younger and smaller than many of his classmates, and did not enjoy physical education classes. Choosing ROTC altered the course of his life.
He excelled in his ROTC training, becoming commander of his unit. The army sergeants who staffed the program began to advise Miller that he should attend college at the United States Military Academy in the New York town of West Point. Admission is free for those who are accepted at West Point, and students receive a percentage of an officer's pay while they study there. In return, graduates are required to serve in the U.S. Army for five years.
Miller earned admission to West Point, but his years there were difficult. During the early 1960s, as civil rights workers fought against discrimination, overt racism was still present in many institutions. There was only one other black cadet in Miller's class of 800, and the entire college of 2,500 students included only eleven African Americans. Racial prejudice was widespread and blatant, creating a hostile atmosphere for the small number of black students.
During the 1960s, all West Point cadets received bachelor's degrees in engineering upon graduation. Though they could not choose any other major, they could choose between civil engineering and nuclear engineering. Miller quickly scanned the texts for each, decided that nuclear engineering seemed the more interesting, and chose that as his field of study.
After his graduation from West Point in 1964, Miller underwent further army training at Airborne school and Army Ranger school. He then went to California to start his first assignment at an air defense artillery unit. Still interested in math and science, Miller sought the opportunity to work with computers, still a fairly new technology during the mid-1960s. One way the army used computers was to keep track of the vast amounts of supplies sent to troops all over the world, so Miller went to supply school to learn about computers.
It was as the commander of a supply unit that Captain Warren Miller saw combat. He served for 13 months in Southeast Asia during the U.S. conflict in Vietnam. By the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had effected some changes in attitudes and policies, and Miller's army career was not marked by the prejudice and racism of his college years. However, he was not really happy in the army. The large, complex organizational structure of the military often frustrated him, seeming too bogged down in forms and procedures to accomplish tasks efficiently. After his tour of duty in Vietnam was over, he gave the U.S. Army a year's notice and resigned his commission.
Deepened His Interest in Computers
In September 1969, three months after leaving the army, Miller entered Northwestern University, near his hometown of Chicago, to continue his education. In three years he earned both his master's and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering. He took a job at Northwestern and enjoyed both teaching and academic research. However, his intellectual curiosity and fascination with evolving computer technology would continue to impel him toward another career change.
Miller's work in nuclear engineering had involved using computer models to develop and test theories of nuclear technology. When Los Alamos National Laboratory offered him a job that included a chance to work with a new supercomputer, he left Northwestern and moved to New Mexico.
Established in 1943, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is a United States Department of Energy research facility which is managed by the University of California. LANL was established during World War II to research and develop an atomic weapon for the war. The laboratory employs physicists, engineers, chemists, and other scientists and mathematicians to participate in a variety of scientific research projects, along with its continued work on nuclear weaponry.
Miller remained at LANL for 27 years. During his career he held many different positions, rising from his entry-level job to associate lab director for math and physics, associate lab director for energy research, and senior research advisor. In these management positions, he learned many organizational skills in addition to his expertise as an engineer and research scientist. As associate lab director he was responsible for overseeing the work over 2000 scientists. As senior research advisor, his job included deciding which research projects the lab should undertake, recruiting the best scientists to work on those projects, and finding the best laboratory facilities for them to use. Another part of his job was speaking with Congress to gain government funding for research projects.
Several times during his career at LANL, Miller took time off from his work to return to teaching. He is also the author of many research papers and journal articles about his work, including, with a colleague, the book Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, published in 1984, which became a standard textbook for engineering students around the world.
Activism Brought Rewards
One of the most personally satisfying moments in Miller's career came during the 1990s when he became one of the scientists honored by President Bill Clinton for his efforts to establish a program to research the human genome. "Human genome" is the term used to describe all of the genetic material required to produce a human being. Though as a nuclear engineer he had not actually worked in the field of genetic biology, Miller had long been interested in promoting the study of the genome and in 1990 had helped initiate a workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to consider the use of laser, robotic, and computer technologies to determine the correct order, or sequence, of the approximately 30,000 human genes in the genome. He then testified before Congress to persuade them to grant the funds needed for the work on the genome.
Another important part of Miller's career has been his work on increasing workplace diversity. Having been one of very few blacks both during his college years and on the job, he has devoted much time and energy increasing the number of African Americans and other minorities in science and engineering. At Los Alamos, he worked for a time as diversity director, encouraging the laboratory to recruit more minority scientists, and acting as mentor to other employees of color and women, who are also often a minority in scientific fields. He has also frequently spoken out publicly about the need for more racial equality in the workplace, such as his keynote speech at the 2000 annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, titled, "Affirmative Action, Mend It, End It, Or What?" During Miller's tenure at LANL, the number of African American employees there almost tripled.
Miller retired from his job at LANL in 2001. He has continued to work as a private consultant, both for the laboratory at Los Alamos and for other national laboratories, helping them plan their research programs. He has also continued to encourage young people to study science and engineering. Though he remains an honored and respected member of the scientific community, Miller considers his greatest achievement to be the successful lives of his two sons, David and Jonathan.
(With E.E. Lewis) Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, 1984.
LANL Newsletter, March 1, 2004, p. 6.
Profiles in Diversity Journal, January/February 2003, p. 67.
"Browne Selects Deputy for Science, Technology And Programs," Los Alamos National Laboratory, www.anl.gov/news/index.php?fuseaction=home.story&story_id=1800 (April 22, 2005).
"Distinguished Engineer of the Year: Warren F. "Pete" Miller, Jr." National Society of Black Engineers, www.nsbe.org/publicrelations/winner_bios.php (April 22, 2005).
"Warren F. Miller, Jr." Biography Resource Center. galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 22, 2005).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Warren F. Miller, Jr., on April 30, 2005.