Education

She watched ‘NCIS’ in third grade and knew exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up

Love of NCIS drives Freeburg teen to pursue forensic chemistry

Althoff Catholic High School student Michal Miller hopes to take her passion for chemistry and the TV show NCIS into a career as a forensic chemist.
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Althoff Catholic High School student Michal Miller hopes to take her passion for chemistry and the TV show NCIS into a career as a forensic chemist.

After catching an episode of “NCIS” on TV at a friend’s house, Michal Miller was hooked.

“NCIS,” which stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is a CBS show that follows special agents as they investigate crimes with Navy or Marine Corps ties.

Michal, now 16, was in third-grade when she started watching.

She says she took an interest in one of the characters: Abby Sciuto. Michal did some research and discovered that she’s a forensic scientist.

From there, Michal began to read about forensic chemistry.

“The difference is with chemistry, you’re actually dealing with more DNA and blood, where forensic science, it’s more like the fingerprints and road tracks and stuff like that,” Michal said. “And I love chemistry. That’s my passion.”

She says she finally felt like she had an answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As a fifth-grader, Michal declared that she would become a forensic chemist.

“It was young enough that people were looking at me like, ‘Forensic chemist? OK,’” she said. “It’s a little bit odd for a child, you know, that’s typically like, ‘I want be a doctor. I want to be a veterinarian.’”

Not Michal. She wants to assist in processing crime scene evidence like Abby Sciuto.

“Just the fact that I’m doing what I love in addition to helping others, I find that awesome,” she said of her career plans.

I realize that, obviously, there are some fictional aspects to that show because it’s a television show, but the underlying science behind it is awesome.

Michal Miller, Althoff Catholic High School junior on “NCIS”

Michal’s mom Rebecca Miller says her daughter has always been focused.

“Regular, normal children things bored her,” Rebecca said. “I’m in education, so I’m like, ‘OK. I know you’re 4, but we’re gonna do this even though it says for 7-year-olds or 6-year-olds.’” Rebecca is a second-grade teacher at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Belleville.

Michal is getting ready to start her junior year at Althoff Catholic High School. She hopes to study forensic chemistry at either an Ivy League school or a college that emphasizes technology, like the California Institute of Technology or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This summer alone, Michal, of Freeburg, traveled to Yale University, Princeton University, Cornell University, Stanford University and Caltech to tour the campuses. But her trip to Yale was an extended one.

Michal lived at Yale’s Branford College for two weeks as part of the selective Yale Young Global Scholars program. During her time there, she took math and science classes taught by Yale professors and students.

There was required reading to complete before she even got there and daily writing assignments after she arrived. But she says that wasn’t the hardest part.

The biggest challenge for Michal was working in a group of five smart students who are used to taking the lead in school projects. They had to choose a real-world problem to research, develop a thesis and then defend their work to their peers and professors.

“It was just such an accomplishment because not only had we succeeded in completing the hardest part of the course, but we had also come together, putting aside our differences and really just being a group,” she said.

When it was over, Michal said they celebrated with Starbucks.

“We just kind of hung out for the rest of the night and had fun,” she said. “It was great.”

Q: Why do you want to attend an Ivy League school?

A: “It’s hard to get into so even just being part of it just seems like you’ve accomplished so much. It’s just always been this major goal that I’ve always been shooting towards.

“... It’s beautiful, and it holds so much knowledge within its walls. I’ve just always wanted to be a part of that.”

Q: You got to spend some time on the Yale campus this summer. How was that?

A: “It was fabulous. I spent two weeks there, and it was an intensive program through the Yale Young Global Scholars. I was part of the Frontiers of Math and Science (session). ... Each has 200 students — one per state and then 150 other countries.

“... By the time I left, I had a 14-page paper, which I had to submit in addition to a half an hour group presentation where 15 minutes was presenting our thesis and our research, and then the other 15 minutes was spent being questioned by our peers and the real Yale professors. We had to basically defend our thesis, but an easier thesis because, you know, we only had two weeks. But we still got a feel of what a real Yale class would be like.”

Q: And you enjoyed all that?

A: “I loved it. It was so much fun. We got to interact with so many other cultures. It was a requirement to speak English, so there wasn’t a language barrier so much. But it was definitely so many cultures under one roof. And every one of them had a common love of math and science.”

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Meet Michal Miller

  • Age: 16
  • School: Junior at Althoff Catholic High School
  • Town: Freeburg
  • Family: Mom Rebecca Miller
  • Pet: 1-year-old Bichon Frise named Loki
  • Favorite subjects in school: Math and science
  • Least favorite subject: History
  • Career plans: Forensic chemist who assists in processing crime scene evidence
  • College plans: She’s considering Ivy League schools and colleges that emphasize technology; her top two choices right now are Yale and Caltech
  • Hobbies: Traveling, reading, playing trivia with her friends, catching up on episodes of “Jeopardy!” and training her dog
  • School activities: Science Club; Math Club; Scholar Bowl; NETwork Against Malaria; tennis
  • Other activities: St. Clair County Teen Court; St. Clair County Youth Board; YMCA Youth and Government; Rotary
  • Role models: Blessed Sacrament science teacher Connie Yordy; Althoff math teacher Christy Gundlach; actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik
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