Faces of Engaged Scholarship: Aniya Khalili

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By Gretchen Minekime


PhD student Aniya Khalili was looking for a research lab that would match her values. She found that match in 2019 with Professor Shelly Miller and was introduced to the practice of community-engaged scholarship. Khalili has master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. She is looking forward to completing her PhD in mechanical engineering, with a focus on indoor air quality and personal exposure, in May 2023. 

How were you introduced to community-engaged scholarship?

I really wanted to do work about the effects of pesticides in agriculture. Dr. Miller suggested I apply for a CU Boulder Outreach Award and do my study in the community. So, I read about the award and attended a Coffee & Conversations event. I liked the concept, and I enjoyed hearing about the different types of community-based research happening and how we can learn and support one another. That’s great, because when I applied and received the outreach grant, I didn’t really know what to expect, and working with the community is harder than I thought it would be. I actually wish there were related methods courses for engineers. 

My project was put on hold because of COVID, and we decided to change it from focusing on the pesticide exposures of agricultural workers to what dogs are exposed to and how it transfers to their humans. The Office for Outreach and Engagement was flexible, and we were eventually able to move ahead. 

What have you learned so far? 

Community-engaged research can go wrong quickly, and it’s so important to communicate well. Transferring knowledge has to be done in ways everyone can understand so that findings can be applied correctly by the public. 

Another project I’m working on (not funded through a CU Boulder Outreach Award), Social Justice and Environmental Quality – Denver, uses a team approach. We have the mechanical engineering team, the computer science team, community members, and we have a social science team. Research can take years, and communities don’t necessarily see results right away. The social science team makes sure we stay in touch with community members throughout every stage. 

In the future, I would like to have my own company and work with communities. I’m even more eager to pursue this, but now I understand that I must have a strong team to do it. Community-based work is very labor-dependent. You’ve got to be available to the communities, and team members caring about the specific community is very important. Teams need to have various expertise to complement one another. For example, community connectors are needed to help researchers communicate and build trust with people. 

What advice would you give other graduate students who are interested in community-engaged scholarship approaches? 

Have the value that community-centered research is important.

Be flexible, because so many last minute issues arise. 

Respect the community…we are working for them, they’re not working for us. Love people, love talking to people, show your good intentions and build trust. Communities can be overloaded by researchers, especially in low-income areas. Sometimes the projects run out of funding and just stop. Sometimes things are not handled well or the results don’t lead to changes, and communities lose trust. That’s why we have our team approach on the Denver project. Caring for the community throughout the work is so important. 

Involve your family and get their support because it’s demanding work. 

Given the challenges, what keeps you motivated?

I think back to the history of how long it can take to make a difference, and this keeps me going. People understand water, but air quality is still less understood. COVID did a lot to advance what the public knows, but it shouldn’t take something so dramatic. I might find something that helps and eventually leads to something applicable in people’s day-to-day lives. This goes back to the importance of the transfer of knowledge. 

Anything to add? 

We need more funds for this type of research—even with NSF (National Science Foundation). We need to invest more to do community-engaged research and make it successful. I don’t know the answer, but being short on funds is sad and so stressful. This lets down communities who were involved and burns them out. 

I really want to say that I appreciate my advisor and all of my fellow team members. Oh, and I also would love to thank my husband. He’s been my partner in crime through all of this! Thank you!

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 Outreach 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 Engaged Scholarship stories and learn about what the Office for Outreach and Engagement offers.