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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Professor of Peace Studies Working to Improve the Lives of Women and Children

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Laura Miller-Graff, an assistant professor of psychology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio. She is the eldest of eight siblings.

“I’m very close with my family,” she says. “We grew up on a farm, so we spent a lot of time with each other and had a lot of fun together. It made me realize how profoundly family influences individual development. My parents were incredibly important in my education and my development as a person.”

When she started high school, she wanted to be a chemotherapist until she figured out that she hates chemistry. “But what has been relatively consistent since I was a kid was a love of doing research,” Miller says. “I remember getting really into science and history fairs, on topics ranging from the effects of pesticides to the history of dirigibles. Digging deeply into a topic and knowing it well is always something I’ve found fun.”

She was majoring in math at the University of Notre Dame when a statistics class turned her onto psychology, a subject which she soon discovered “was a nice blend of science, math, and interpersonal components.” She changed her course of study and went on to get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan.

"I love the science but it is equally, if not more important to me, that my research contributes to improving the lives of women and children both globally and locally in real and tangible ways."

Today, Miller studies what trauma does to women and families. Most recently, she’s been examining what predicts resilience in children who either saw violence or were direct victims of it. “There is a lot of great theory on how people flourish, even after exposure to great adversity,” she says, “but much less on how to adequately capture that well in empirical work.”

Along with her colleagues, Miller has been looking into which aspects of children's social lives contribute to thriving after being exposed to violence. One of her recent studies showed this: “Across the board, social support—from parents early on, and from friends later in life—emerges as a consistent predictor of positive functioning, as does spirituality,” Miller says. “But what's most interesting to us is how to identify when people are doing ‘well’ and when they are not, since functioning is so multi-contextual and multifaceted. It's an exciting conceptual problem.”

“I have a strong sense of mission about what I do,” Miller says. “I love the science but it is equally, if not more important to me, that my research contributes to improving the lives of women and children both globally and locally in real and tangible ways.”

Her minor in college was Middle Eastern studies, and one of the six grants she’s received to fund her work let her delve into the repercussions of the violence that plays out in Israel and Palestine. She is in the process of developing ways to improve lives and provide “feedback to organizations that can immediately inform practice at a local level” in conflict zones around the world.

Miller’s work so far has earned her a tenure-track position at Notre Dame, a rarity for someone still in her twenties. “I would say that I’m proud of getting a job back at my undergraduate alma mater,” she says, “but proud wouldn’t necessarily be the right word. Shocked, astounded, mystified, and blissfully happy would probably be more accurate. When I got the phone call to come interview here, I almost passed out, I was so excited. Being back at Notre Dame is lots of fun.”

In her free time, Miller reads, plays piano, does puzzles, runs, and spends time with her big family. “I’m a bit more on the introverted end,” she says, “so I tend to like things that re-energize me and give a sense of solitude.” She also loves to travel: “Anywhere I haven’t been is a place I want to go.”

Ultimately, Miller hopes that her research makes interventions for violence-exposed women and children better, more affordable, and easier to access. “And I also hope,” she adds, “that my research is one part of a larger and more important push by hundreds, thousands, millions of people to prevent violence, mitigate its harmful effects, and be an agent for peace and justice in the global and local community.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).