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Top Thinker

Clinical psychology doctoral student Kelly Miller is named a “Top Thinker Under 30” by Pacific Standard. She also clinched a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship on her first try.

By Laura Paisley
May 22, 2014

Kelly Miller will use her new NSF grant to continue her clinical research in attachment theory. Photo by Erica Christianson.

Kelly Miller will use her new NSF grant to continue her clinical research in attachment theory. Photo by Erica Christianson.

You may think your relationship with your parents hasn’t had significant impact on your life, but your body may tell a different story.

When Kelly Miller learned about this disconnect between mind and body while an undergraduate psychology student, she became intensely interested in the subject of attachment theory.

In one seminal early study she read, subjects’ attachment levels were measured through an interview in which they were asked to describe their relationship with their primary caregivers. In addition to their verbal responses, they were monitored physiologically through their sweat response.

Certain respondents characterized their relationships with caregivers — usually their parents — as having very little impact on their lives, and the source of minimal distress for them. However, those expressing this sentiment displayed the highest physiological stress response.

“Relationships are inherently interesting to all of us,” said Miller, now in her second year as a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at USC Dornsife. “It’s what makes us human: our interest in other people, their minds and how we interact with each other.”

Miller was recently designated one of “The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30” by Pacific Standard, a bimonthly magazine for those committed to finding solutions to worldwide social and environmental problems. The magazine launched its inaugural search within the social and behavioral sciences for some of the “dazzling minds that will be shaping our society’s big ideas for years to come.”

Additionally, Miller recently won a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship on her first attempt. The three-year grant will provide funding to allow her to pursue research full-time. Her proposed research project is titled “Physiological Responses to Emotional Vulnerability in Dating Partners.”

“One of the big questions I’m interested in is how relationships are emotionally regulating for people,” said Miller. “What is it about relationships that can soothe people when they’re in distress? I’m interested in examining this physiologically, and I’m also really interested in the individual variations of this process — why does going to a romantic partner or parent for comfort work for some people but not others?”

Attachment theory asserts that people form cognitive models of relationships in their mind based on early life experiences, though these models are updated based on later relationship experiences, ultimately giving people a schema about themselves and others.

“These beliefs help shape people’s expectations of whether others will be helpful in times of distress and whether difficult emotions can be overcome. Over time, these expectations are embedded under the skin — people who expect to receive comfort from others have an easier time recovering from stress physiologically.”

But the way people report on relationships verbally isn’t always in synch with how their bodies respond. Miller’s interest focuses on the chemical indications of attachment and emotional regulation, particularly oxytocin, a hormone and social neuromodulator that plays an important role in human and animal pair-bonding.

“Based on the plentiful animal-based scientific literature, there’s a model in which stress creates an increase in bodily levels of cortisol, which in turn triggers oxytocin release, creating a feedback loop,” Miller explained. “So the first goal of my NSF grant research project is to observe this regulatory cycle in humans, which hasn’t been studied extensively.”

For her experiment, Miller will study romantic couples in her laboratory. The couples will be led through a series of conversations addressing stressful issues in their relationship or stories of loss that bring about emotional vulnerability — and thus the possibility to engage in the cortisol-oxytocin regulation feedback loop. Miller’s team will monitor subjects’ oxytocin and cortisol biomarkers in an attempt to observe their biological regulatory pathways. She aims to distinguish between the individuals who get stressed but recover and those who don’t, as well as those who don’t respond to the emotional stressors at all.

Ultimately, she’s hopeful that this research will have the potential to substantially help people.

“My current research addresses some basic scientific questions — what’s going on in the body when we seek comfort from others? For whom is this comforting process effective and for whom it is not?  But I hope that it can inform us down the road in establishing interventions for people who are distressed in their relationships,” Miller said.

Miller’s adviser, Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics Gayla Margolin, already sees great potential in the young scientist’s work.

“Kelly brings a keen mind and passion to her research, where she is investigating, among other things, how family members’ emotional reactivity to each other explains intergenerational patterns in family relationships,” Margolin said. “She uses cutting-edge methods to measure emotion, including neuroendocrine and psychophysiological measurements. Kelly demonstrates a rare level of methodological and conceptual sophistication and, as a second year graduate student, already has laid the groundwork for excellent contributions as a clinical scientist.”

For her part, Miller calls Margolin “exceptionally supportive” and speaks glowingly about her research experiences at USC Dornsife.

“One of my very favorite things about doing research at USC is how collaborative my lab is,” Miller said. “We all really support each other and it’s great to have people to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with. I’ve been blown away by how supportive the research environment is here — and in my lab in particular.”