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Putting science research to practical use

Alumni News Magazine | Fall/Winter 2020

You might think that a researcher who’s dedicated his career to studying fungi and fungal toxins might be chained to his lab. But that’s not the case for Carleton University professor and UNB alumnus J. David Miller (BSc’75, MSc’78, PhD’81).

Dr. Miller’s priority has always been to serve the community. He’s done so by influencing public policy, and taking on projects that enable practical and positive outcomes on the health of people and the planet. He’s partnered with Health Canada and Environment Canada to establish health policy, participated in international panels including the World Health Organization, the US FDA, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, and the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He has co-written 10 books on the public health aspects of exposures to fungi and published more than 350 papers on fungi and fungal toxins.

It all started back in the mid-70s when he was a grad student at UNB working at the site of the shipwrecked Manes P cargo ship off the coast of Saint John, NB. His thesis examined how the biological activity of fungi was able to degrade Bunker C oil. A Saint John native whose father was a chemist and brewmaster at Moosehead Breweries, Dr. Miller says he was fortunate to study at UNB among the best organic chemistry and biology departments in Canada. “There was huge research capacity with the natural products group at UNB. Dr. Norman Whitney,  Dr. John Findlay and others were the best at what they did.”

During a post-doctoral fellowship in England, Dr. Miller was offered a job at Agriculture Canada, where he led the Fusarium mycotoxin program, examining toxins growing in Canadian grains. “Mycotoxin contamination of crops has a very large economic consequence to the agri-food systems.”

In 2000, he took a position as professor and NSERC research chair at Carleton University, and played a critical role in shaping Canadian and world health policy. Since then – among many other things – he’s chaired a working group of world-leading experts convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer who published on critical health complications from exposure to aflatoxins and fumonisin —mycotoxins produced by moulds. Their recommendations to reduce exposure in developing countries is something Dr. Miller is passionate about. 

“I always wanted to translate R&D and embed it into policies for public good. It’s extremely important to deliver research and use knowledge to make a difference and benefit our environment and people.”  

He’s also done work back at home.

He teamed up with J.D. Irving, Limited (JDI) to combat the eastern spruce budworm threat in an environmentally sensitive way. His research led to the discoveries of the role that endophytes play in the forest ecosystem. Endophytes are fungi that live in the leaves of many plants, and it turns out that conifer endophytes are transmitted to seedlings as they begin to grow on the forest floor surrounded by cast needles from mature trees.

Thanks to the partnership, this natural process has since been successfully replicated in greenhouses. JDI now mass-produces endophytic fungi and has planted more than 200 million endophyte-enhanced seedlings. The resulting trees have been demonstrated to have increased tolerance to spruce budworm, critical during a period of increased budworm activity. In 2016, this work received one of the most important science prizes in Canada.

“My work isn’t about research that sits on a shelf. It’s about making an impact and solving problems. It has been important to take advantage of the opportunities given me to make  a difference.”

Photo caption: Dr. Miller with his former students Blake Green and Grace Daily

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