Rhodes Scholar explores mysteries of space and faith

Rhodes Scholar Sarah Miller plans to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics.
Rhodes Scholar Sarah Miller plans to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics. Brett Buchanan

Sarah Miller didn't find out she was going to be a Rhodes Scholar in the mail or on the phone. She was standing shoulder to shoulder with the 20 or so other finalists in the Texas/Louisiana region, many of whom she'd gotten to know and like over the course of an intense weekend of interviews.

"It was very reality-show style," says Miller, an astronomy and physics major from Dallas. "We were actually lined up in a jury box, and they let us know right there. We had just spent a long weekend together bonding, so it was actually kind of a bittersweet moment in that respect."

Miller, along with 31 other Rhodes Scholars from across America, will head to Oxford University in Great Britain in the fall to study and live for two to three years. The value of the award, which depends on the students' academic interests and requirements, and includes stipends for travel, averages about $45,000 per year.

Oxford is familiar territory for Miller. She's gone to a theology summer program there for the last four years, and looks forward to returning to a place she already loves. But the real prize, she says, is the chance to continue her study of astronomy.

"It's the scientific study of everything in the universe," she says. "It's all the big questions that philosophy and religion are also trying to answer, but it's approaching them through science. How did we get here? How old is the universe? How did it evolve? Are we the only life in the universe? I just think it's the most exciting thing happening in academics."

At Oxford, Miller plans to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics. In particular, she's going to do observational extra-galactic cosmology (looking at galaxies beyond the Milky Way). It's the same field in which she's done research as an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Austin, working with astronomy Professor Shardha Jogee, and in which she's already co-authored published papers.

"I like theory," says Miller, "and you're never without it. But I find I'm liking much more the challenge of actually exploring and discovering things. I like going to telescopes, and being up all night, and looking at the galaxies, and figuring out what's out there."

For Miller, astrophysics is also a nice complement to the mysteries of her faith-a way to approach the universe that allows for definite, concrete answers to some, but not the most important, questions about life, the universe and everything.

"Why is there something rather than nothing?" she asks. "For me, personally, the answer is God. But I think it's legitimate for people to not have that answer. It's something that comes from your heart and your gut. It's not a scientifically reproducible thing. Me being right doesn't mean you being wrong, whereas in science that would be the case. I don't want to mix the two methods of understanding the universe, because I think people really get nowhere when they do that."

Eventually, Miller would like to return to the United States as an astronomy professor, but she's not in a hurry to get back here.

"If I do a post-doctoral fellowship in Germany or spend some time in France after I finish at Oxford," she says, "I wouldn't mind that."