Why respect from your peers is the ultimate career achievement

Spotlight on

Michael I. Miller, PhD

Who is Mike Miller?

Michael I. Miller, PhD is a highly accomplished biomedical engineer who currently serves as the Director of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) which has ranked No. 1 in the country for BME since 1992 by the annual U.S. News and World Report. While the contributions his work has made to the field of medicine cannot be overstated, including generating the first neural codes for cochlear implants, Michael says he was never really that focused on what he wanted to do after college, and was not that aware of biomedical engineering as a field before he was encouraged to visit the graduate schools at Johns Hopkins. Having always enjoyed math and physics, this nudge was serendipity as it allowed him to do things that were analytical and quantitative, and apply his knowledge to the field of biology, where he felt he could make a difference.

There’s no question that biomedical engineering is a large discipline encompassing vast scales of information, and there is one common thread that applies to everyone in this field - ambition. Michael believes the key to success is one that creates a space that’s welcoming of that ambition as well as a culture of excellence. Here he shares his wisdom on the role art can play in innovation, what he sees as the essential ingredients for a successful startup, and why respect is the ultimate achievement.


Art opens your mind to new ideas

Growing up in New York, Michael was exposed to art at an early age, with regular trips to galleries such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his later years, as he was working on his doctorate in neural codes in the auditory system, Michael began studying the works of Pablo Picasso, looking to understand what Picasso was doing in his paintings. Michael found it to be an artistic representation of what Noam Chomsky would later do with words - create strings of words that were contradictory, to force you to look at what language was communicating, the meaning that was hidden below the surface. In the same way that Chomsky challenged our ability to comprehend nonsensical phrases (think “time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”), Picasso challenged the boundaries of shape and form, notably with Man with a Pipe. Through this intersection of shapes, textures, and colors you can see the form emerge of a man smoking a pipe, though seeing it can be a challenge.

The key behind appreciating both Picasso and Chomsky’s work is that it forces you to look for meaning. Finding that meaning, and thinking about it as it applies to your work, can be revolutionary. In Michael’s case, this decade of study of shape and form spawned a theory, which led to the invention of computational anatomy, a breakthrough predictive tool that modernized surgical planning, therapies, and diagnostics.

The lesson? Study the world around you and let the work of others inspire you, even if it seems like it could never apply to your field.


To be successful, focus on the essentials while creating a welcoming space for ambition

People are the starting point for anything - you have to have passionate, committed people. This is especially true in the broad field of biomedical engineering. If you want to excel in this space, you have to have great people within all the different scales.

You also have to have a clear focus on your clinical markets and start defining industry translation pathways from the start. Build those relationships early.

One commonality shared by everyone in the biomedical engineering field is ambition. The whole field is incredibly ambitious, so it’s crucial to create a space that welcomes that. Johns Hopkins calls this ‘cultural excellence,’ and the core is creating a place where people want to be. Be humble and let people have their greatness. Bring humility and civility, be collegial, surround yourself with great people, and acknowledge it.

Be humble and let people have their greatness.


Exhibit behavior that is worth emulating

When asked what he is most proud of, Michael immediately gushed about his family, including his wife Elizabeth, who is also Johns Hopkins faculty, and his amazing daughter Eliza.

Shifting to the workplace, Michael replied his proudest career accomplishment is “respect from my colleagues.” Despite having a Wikipedia citing dozens of breakthroughs, studies, awards, and innovations attributed to him, Michael likes to think of himself as a ‘mensch.’

Do work that you are passionate about because you believe in what you are doing - we all want to believe that what we are doing is important, but ultimately the community will decide if it really had an impact. So focus on your passion, lead by example, demonstrate success by acting in ways that aren’t petty, and exhibit behavior that is worth emulating. Greatness is achieved one thing at a time, and time will tell what kind of mark you leave behind.

Greatness is achieved one thing at a time, and time will tell what kind of mark you leave behind.