By Gretchen Minekime April 26, 2023
Professor Shelly L. Miller, Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering and Applied Science
Professor Shelly L. Miller is a problem solver and an air pollution engineer. She finds reward and value when solving issues with immediate benefits, such as improved public health. Doing her work through a community partnership model is a match made in heaven.
How did you start working in public and community-engaged scholarship, and what motivates you to prioritize it?
My interest came about in the early 2000s when I joined CU Denver colleagues to work in Commerce City on a HUD-funded project. That was my first community-engaged work. We went into 100 homes to set up monitoring stations, created questionnaires and interviewed community members. My CU Denver colleagues were experienced in a public setting, whereas I had previously only been in the lab.
Afterward, I started working more with citizen scientists and community members because, to make an impact, I need to work in communities to determine their number one concern and how we can address it. I’m dedicated to problem solving for urban air pollution because I care about people’s health, and air pollution increases illness and death. I need to engage in order to help.
What have you learned about this model of working?
I appreciate multi-disciplinary teams, and I like that environment. Currently, I’m working with a sociologist and computer scientist, and I’m the environment person. It’s a great team because the social science team is incredibly skilled in working with communities. It takes time and extra asks, and participants want and deserve something in return. Previously, I worked with a geographer who can really work with large data sets and geographical differences between communities and those influences on working with communities.
I’ve also learned that I have to be comfortable with variability in data collection. I have to be able to say I can’t answer some of the technical questions because I’m working with citizen scientists in less controlled environments.
I see two things over and over again when visiting communities. Few people realize they should use a carbon monoxide detector at home. The second thing is that people don’t have ducted stove hoods, or they don’t use them. No matter the type of stove, we should always vent when cooking. Cooking foods release volatile compounds and airborne particles. If your vent isn’t ducted, open your windows or move an air cleaner into your kitchen. Air pollutants move around the house rapidly.
What current projects are you involved in?
The project I mentioned before, with my sociology and computer science colleagues, is an NSF project called Social Justice and Environmental Air Quality (SJEQ-D). We’re working in Denver communities next to an I-70 construction project to see how the construction has affected air quality and health. We hope to conduct the same study in other locations such as Pueblo and Colorado Springs.
Two years ago, the Office for Outreach and Engagement funded a project about pesticide exposure. I don’t have much expertise in this area, but my colleague had wristband samplers. We found interesting results in the City of Boulder, and the city has funded us to repeat the study this spring.
I’m advising two projects out of California related to exposures from wildfires. With one, we ran into issues for lower-income communities who often don’t have AC, so they use open windows. In response, my colleagues are developing a swamp cooler with air filtration abilities. The other project is assessing elder communities and whether wildfire exposure increases aging markers and health issues.
Why is public and community-engaged scholarship important for CU Boulder?
It’s one of my favorite parts of CU Boulder. What else are we here for? We’re here to develop future leaders, community members and engineers, but at the same time, we also need to actively support our communities right now.
Training an engineer is four years of education, but along the way, they can engage in helping communities. And at CU, we do this across all disciplines. It makes Colorado a better place and connects CU to our citizens in a grounded way. They meet us and can see the institution’s value.
What would you say to fellow faculty members about incorporating public and community-engaged scholarship?
I guess I would say that you won’t know how great it is or if you’ll enjoy it until you’ve tried it. The barrier isn’t that high. The outreach program is welcoming of kinds of ideas and funds lots of work. I encourage people just to try it. They might find it incredibly rewarding.
Read about PhD student Aniya Khalili, one of Miller’s mentees, and the projects underway in their lab.
The CU Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement facilitates mutually beneficial partnerships between communities and scholars who seek to advance their work in community settings. Faces of Community-Engaged Scholarship highlights the stories of CU Boulder faculty, staff, students and public partners conducting the work and what they’re accomplishing together. See more Faces of Community-Engaged Scholarship stories and learn about what the Office for Outreach and Engagement offers.