Undergraduate researcher finds a new way to serve


Undergraduate researcher finds a new way to serve

“Keep your head on a swivel. Flip the switch.”

These are just some of the catchphrases David Miller heard regularly during his seven years in the Marine Corps.

For good reason. Traits like being highly tuned in to your environment, known as situational awareness, can promote safety and survival during combat.

But what happens when this mindset is carried into everyday life? Someone with their hands behind their back may be a red flag in combat, but it’s par-for-the-course in a grocery store.

“There’s no threat in Walmart 99% of the time, but if you’re constantly looking for it, you’re going to find it even if it isn’t there” Miller says. “That is one of the main characteristics of anxiety disorders.”

Miller, a senior psychology major, has spent the past three years exploring how military training translates to everyday life – and how adaptive behaviors can become maladaptive depending on the context and intensity.

Personal experience guided his path. After being medically discharged from the Marine Corps due to a degenerative spine disease, Miller lost part of his identity.

As he grappled with transitions in his job and health, Miller, like many veterans, says he had multiple “rough years.” It wasn’t until he developed a plan to pursue a psychology degree at UNCG that he began to feel hope, realizing he could reclaim the part of himself that thrived on supporting his comrade-in-arms.

“We lose a lot of our service members to suicide every day, and one of those things that drives me is trying to bring that number down – I want to be a light on people’s darkest days,” he says.

“UNCG stood out for its psychology program – and as a place where I could feel accepted and welcome.”

And at UNCG, Miller unexpectedly found an even bigger way to serve.

When David Miller was medically retired from the Marine Corps, he lost a core part of his identity. Now, as a psychology major, he’s found a new way to serve, delving into research on veteran mental health.  

”I found my career and my people.”

Entering UNCG, Miller excelled in his core psychology courses, so much so that he was invited participate in undergraduate research.

“I knew I needed research experience to become a clinical psychologist,” says Miller, so he accepted. “But I thought I would hate it – the math, the statistics.”

He began working with Dr. Blair Wisco, whose lab’s focus on post-traumatic stress disorder captured his interest. “Listening to people just nerd out about psychology the same way I did was so awesome.”

During lab discussions, it dawned on Miller that some behaviors associated with PTSD were commonplace in military training. “What if a person found these things really useful for 4 to 20 years?” he asked. His colleagues didn’t have an answer.

Just like that, Miller was bitten by the research bug. “I thought – I should do better at statistics, because I want to do more research.”

He applied to MARC U-STAR, a prestigious NIH-funded program at UNCG that supports undergraduates from diverse groups as they explore research.

“During the interview process, one of the professors asked me how many people I could help with a regular clinical psychology practice, and how many I could help if I brought my experience into veteran mental health research.”

It sparked a sea change in Miller’s thinking.

“Helping countless veterans through research and contributing something new to an entire body of thought – I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity. I had found my career and my people.”

Scaling Up

Miller was accepted into the program, which provided him with a monthly stipend so he would not have to split focus between research and work, travel funds for conferences and presentations, and research funding and mentorship.

For the past two years psychology professor and director of clinical training Kari Eddington has been Miller’s mentor. “She’s really kept me on course and always been there to listen and then say, ‘Okay, well what do you need?’” Miller says. “She’s incredibly knowledgeable.”

The program also supports summer research experiences at other universities. This summer, Miller worked at Duke’s Traumatic Stress and Health Research Lab.

The multi-faceted opportunities have provided Miller with a well-rounded research toolkit and diverse experiences. He’s also integrating his growing skills in an independent project, which he calls the Warrior Mentality Scale. “It’s a brief measure of thoughts, behaviors, and perceptions unique to military veterans, which may impact regulation of emotions, anxiety, stress, and perception of safety.” He hopes one day his scale can help assess veterans’ mental health in a more streamlined and effective manner.

“I’ve learned building a scale is very much piecemealing from work other people have done,” Miller says. “In research, we all stand on the shoulders of giants.” He spends hours upon hours perusing existing psychological research to better understand what’s been done in his area of interest.

“What’s novel about his work is the focus on the military training environment and how that impacts psychological processes,” says Dr. Eddington. “Often the focus is more on acute combat experiences and trauma.”

So far, Miller has drafted and tested iterations of his scale on over 275 veterans. The evolving scale mirrors his experience at UNCG integrating and leveraging each new opportunity, experience, and piece of knowledge into what he calls a “game-changing” education.

Next up? To do what he’s been doing – but on a bigger scale. He’s applying to grad school.

He feels well prepared for this next step of his research career.

“What a lot of people have only done for six months or a year when they graduate, I’ve been able to be do for three years. And the confidence from that is just incredible.”

“UNCG stood out for its psychology program – and as a place where I could feel accepted and welcome.”

Story by Rachel Damiani
Photography by Van Walker & Hunter Pham
Video by Van Walker
This article will appear in print in Spring 2023
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