Published: Aug. 4, 2017

On CUE sat down with Dr. Shelly Miller to talk about her research and background, as well efforts to reach gender equity within our college. For more information, follow Dr. Miller on Twitter @ShellyMBoulder or visit her website www.shellym80304.com. And we want your input so make sure to send your ideas for who or what we should cover to cuengineering@colorado.edu.

On CUE Podcast Transcript
"This will just make everything better." - Shelly Miller - Ep. 2

Announcer:

And now from the University of Colorado in Boulder the College of Engineering and Applied Science presents: On Cue. Here's your host, Phil Larson.

Phil Larson:

Something we can all appreciate is the quality of the air we breathe both when we’re inside buildings and of course when we’re outside in our environment. And Dr. Shelly Miller who's been at the college for almost two decades has focused her research on that throughout her career. She's in the Mechanical Engineering Department. And I first got to know about her actually via social media. She is quite active on Twitter posting about, you know, her research the goings on here at the college but also, you know, politics, gender issues, the climate for faculty staff and students here in the college. And so she was one of the first people I got to meet here in the college and excited to work with her on these issues. And so we sat down to talk about that. So I hope you enjoy.

Larson:

Okay, so we’re here with Dr. Shelly Miller thanks for joining us On Cue. So excited to have you.

Shelly Miller:

Thanks for having me. It's great.

Larson:

I mean first things first. Some good news out about some research you're working on related to kind of infectious disease, air quality in hospitals. Could you talk about that? Just maybe summarize it for us.

Miller:

One of my major areas of research is Infectious Disease Controls from an engineering perspective. And this project was funded by the Veterans Administration so it was really interesting to work with the V.A.. And one of the ideas we had was, if there is a big outbreak within the community hospitals are going to be overrun with people who need isolation rooms. And you put a person who has an airborne infectious disease in an isolation room to keep them from infecting other people. But we only have one or two isolation rooms per floor or even per hospital. And so the idea was could we turn a whole ward in a hospital into an isolation ward so we get between 30 to 50 people at once and without doing like major construction. Yeah without doing major construction or without purchasing a huge airborne infectious disease like tent they used those when we had the Ebola outbreak where they would spend a lot of money on these special tents. And if you didn't have those resources could you just use the hospital set up.

Larson:

And so you, your research has been focused on air quality both inside buildings but also outside. What drew you to like I want to make sure we continue to have you know clean air with all these new buildings and new materials with pollutants in the atmosphere. You know where where did that come from in your life?

Miller:

Yeah that's a great question. I grew up in Southern California and as a high schooler there were many days that I needed to go home from school because the air quality was so poor. We were not able to maintain good air probably in Southern California for a very long time. And it's much better now. Even though there's more cars and more people because we've used engineering to figure out how to solve much of the air pollution problem there are still issues.

Larson:

But I just moved from L.A. And it's you know pretty clear. But you talked to folks who lived there like this is not what it was even 10 years ago or 20 years ago.

Miller:

Yeah it was really really a problem. It's still an issue in many many parts of the world.

But we have done a lot of good work in Southern California. So, but when I grew up it was still very poor air quality. And then when I went to graduate school I fell in love with environmental engineering and particularly the air quality track because I just really was impacted by air quality and thought it was such an important problem to address. And so ever since then I just have focused my interest and expertise on solving urban air pollution problems which includes the outdoor air in a city or in a urban area. Plus what happens in buildings in urban areas.

Larson:

Wow. So it was first hand experience?

Miller:

It was definitely first hand experience, exactly.

Larson:

And you went to college, you went to Harvey Mudd? What was that like? 

Miller:

Oh it's a great great place. It's a small very very good engineering college with about, lets see, when I was there it was about 800 students maybe. But one of the distinguishing features about it when I was there was that it was, there were very few women. So I was about 10 percent female students when I was there. So I would always go and get my more diverse experiences from the other Claremont Colleges the Scripps and Pomona and other places. But now Harvey Mudd is so impressive because they have an amazing female president and also more than 50 percent female students as well as a very diverse student body.

Larson:

It is a purely engineering college?

Miller:

It’s science and engineering but it is also focused on making sure the science and engineering students take liberal arts courses so they have a thread throughout the program which is similar to our Herbst for humanities program here at CU. Which is why I love that program too because I remember taking those kinds of courses when I was at Harvey Mudd.

Larson:

And one of the things I think you know with the strategic vision we're working on here is more well-rounded engineers whether it's business and entrepreneurship whether it's liberal arts communications and of course we can talk about in a little bit the gender equity that we're working on as well. But you also you did your work at Berkeley which in many ways maybe we have something in common you know stuff in common with Berkeley; flagship of the state system.

Miller:

Definitely.

Larson:

Maybe. Maybe the political bent of the locality. Talk about Berkeley, what was that like for you?

Miller:

It was such a good experience for me. I went to the.. and it was important for me to do to do it in a sequence just given the kind of person I am. But I went to a small college and then I went to graduate school at Berkeley which is a much larger institution. It's probably about the same size it was then as CU and it really helped me mature and open my eyes and get a lot of really important experiences while attending graduate school Berkeley. And it was such a great learning experience to do my do my graduate work there.

Larson:

What drew you to CU?

Miller:

One of my colleagues from Berkeley actually came to CU as an environmental engineering professor. And he let me know that they had this new program at CU called the chancellor's postdoctoral fellowship which was to promote, to try to bring a diverse group of scholars here and help them learn about CU and then possibly recruit them to join the faculty. So I applied for that program and was accepted by the chancellor as his postdoctorate fellow. And there was another fellow that was in the arts and sciences college. And so I came from two years from ‘96 to ‘98 as the chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow and I got to know the mechanical engineering department because I worked in that department with my colleague and mentor Janna Millford. And it was a really synergistic excellent experience during that time I was able to apply for my first, grant get out a few papers. And so as a result the mechanical engineer Department wanted to wanted to hire me to join the faculty so I applied and we went through the faculty search and I ended up joining the faculty in 1998. I've been here for almost 20 years.

Larson:

That's pretty sweet.

Miller:

It's been a great career. It's been a really phenomenal University I love the faculty here and it's been a great place.

Larson:

So you've seen some change over those years. And one of the you know one of the things we were working on you know getting more females engaged and excelling in engineering here at CU and changing, improving the climate not just for students but for everyone. What are some ideas you've seen work or you've implemented that could help us reach you know gender equity?

Miller:

So I've been reading some books and some articles in order to better and for myself and of what has worked and what we could be doing. And one of the most influential books I read was by Jane Newton-Small called broad influence how women are changing the way America works as she reviews all of these different organizations and states the pretty clear fact that if you have more than 30 percent women in your organization it will really change the way the organization functions, in anything. In a conference in the Senate in a department in you know the Supreme Court wherever you look if there’s at least 30 percent women or more than the culture changes and the way that the organization changes that it really makes a huge difference. And then that will shift everything. So I've been really impressed by that idea.

Larson:

So 30 percent mark seems important for kind of this sliding scale. Three's a party right? So if there's three you know folks like me are you know it makes you feel more comfortable. More than just like a two, a duo, right? Which makes sense. We like to say this isn't just the right thing to do as it is the right thing to do everyone involved. It's also the smart thing to do. We can't succeed, we can't innovate with half the team on the bench. And the reason I bring this up is thinking more innovatively, thinking bringing different values, bringing different perspectives to the lab to the classroom to the factory. That is what engineering is, that's what innovation is. And so would you would you agree or what do you think of like you know how do women approach engineering differently than men, problem solving fixing things. That’s what engineering is; taking things apart putting it back together making things better faster cheaper. And so what things do you think females bring or think differently than men or vice versa.

Miller:

Yeah I'm so glad you brought that up and wanted to talk about that because I really agree it's not just to have you know women sitting in the room but it's the fact that they can actually help to solve problems in a much different way and more creatively and you can get to the solution faster. And this is mentioned in a couple of… in a book that I was reading how some of the female senators who solved a huge budget impasse. And if they had never figured out how to work together and talk and…

Larson:

I think that was Susan Collins from Maine maybe…

Miller:

Yeah something like that and it was so impressive so it was really neat to think about OK what are the gifts and what are the things that if you have a diverse workforce and that women are sitting at the table how will the solutions look differently. And I do see it in my classroom actually when I have my engineering teams work together and they have more women on the team than men and sometimes the direction of the project will go totally differently than if the gender balance is different and it's a really interesting interesting way to proceed and I think that we should really think about it in terms that this would just make everything better and work working together with diverse viewpoints can really get us farther faster.

Larson:

Yeah I view it as a competitiveness thing. We want the new jobs and new industries here we want to be the best place to work. We want to bring entrepreneurs to this country and with this you know we can have a skilled workforce that leaves 50 percent behind we can have the best ideas ff we don't have everybody at the table.

Miller:

Yeah I really think that's important.

Larson:

You know nationwide engineering students are about 20 percent female. We’re above the national average at around 39 - 40 with this incoming class.  But mechanical as you point out is kind of the opposite and with environmental.

Miller:

Yeah that's my home department in mechanical engineering and it's it's really an impressive department with actually quite a lot of women faculty here at CU in the department. I remember when I first joined the faculty thinking ‘oh goodness there's more women faculty here than there are at Berkeley in the Mechanical Engineering Department.’ So I've been really proud of that we have quite a few women on our faculty but never have experienced very many women in the classroom in mechanical engineering. So I think that tt's just remained stagnant and kind of it just it's a little bit tiring after awhile to say oh there's still no you know no women deans in such and such college or that we still have only 25 percent female faculty. I'm just I think that begins to wear a little bit.

Larson:

Sure. And that's why we're you know a concerted effort now that I'm excited to partner with you on the and like what do we actually do. How do we move the needle. Is it scholarships is it a better climate is it telling stories like you know I look like an engineer campaign is it lifting up role models and leaders like yourself. What are the actual tangible steps what have you seen maybe work. What have you seen not so much.

Miller:

Yeah. It's a really good question. It's something that I've been exploring more recently. What is it that works what are the goals and strategies we can use. And so I still am working on that because I don't have a complete picture of what it is but you know reading some books and doing some research with a colleague of mine and reading some papers on these topics and just being aware.

Larson:

We should get a Shelly’s reading list.

Miller:

Yes you should get a Shelly’s reading list! I have a long reading list

Larson:

Put it on our blog. The problem in industry is maybe not talked about as much as it is in an academic setting or in policy making settings, but how do we you know if we have this goal, how do we work that in partnership with companies that are going to hire these folks. I think is a you know a question, how do we engage industry on this.

Miller:

I think it's an interesting idea. Some of my students for example. I actually had lunch the other day with a student who moved from one engineering company to the other and the company that she was originally at she was the only female in the company. And it was a smaller company but still one out of 20 people and she moved to another company which was a much larger enviornmental consulting company and there were more women in the office and she was expressing to me how much more comfortable she was at that job and how she could be herself and really excel whereas at the other position she didn't. So I only hear anecdotal ideas from students about industry and I haven't actually worked in partnership with them to help and learn from them as well.

Larson:

And it differs in every field and difference. I was an aerospace and it was you know under 10 percent. I went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. You know pilots and engineers it was 8 percent 10 percent, environmental maybe a little different computer science. Do you think we need an NCWIT for every field?

Miller:

Well gosh I mean I hate to just continue to reinvent the wheel.

Larson:

But if the wheel works maybe we just take it.

Miller:

Yeah maybe we, I love that we are partnering with them and trying to in fact we I'm just going to go to training for one of our promotion and tenure committees here on campus and the training is going to be done by NCWIT you know so maybe we don't we reinvent our own but we help them and expand their staff and make sure that what they're doing we can we can also learn from I think it's important.

Larson:

And then to actually reach our goal I think it's not a matter of just you know saying the goal and admitting more women we're doing it while we raise standards as well. This is the most qualified class you ever had and the most diverse. So you know what do you see big challenges or do you think it's more just like spotlighting it and focusing on it making a concerted effort or and/or do you. What about the systemic issue of you know it starts early you know fourth grade girls and boys are neck and neck. Or sometimes girls are passing them in math and science scores but then it gets into the middle school and my high school years. And that's where it's not a substance question it's a societal or cultural and you see you know girls dissuaded maybe from their classmates just like you know we were talking before hand about a mechanical engineering student. Female student maybe not you know going and doing the actual you know welding or the machining because her classmates just didn't think that was appropriate. You know what do you think about the spectrum of like how do we actually do this it can't just be a pinpoint it's got to be a broad spectrum.

Miller:

It does and I think that one of the things we saw in a recent survey that we looked at in our from our freshman engineering project class was the pretty large discrepancy between the experience that the female students have compared to the male students. And so looking at those kinds of data one of the one of the questions had to do with identity and female students had a much lower sense of engineering identity than the male students. So something like that could be addressed in multiple ways but including the I look like an engineer a campaign helps those kinds of things. And so looking at data from from those kinds of surveys can help us target helpful actions. But I think one of the really great programs that's going on at all across CU is to revamp the first year experience for all of our students. And if we can do that especially well for our engineering students because we worked so hard to bring in the best students, right? And then if we don't provide them with a good program where they learn how to become a community and they learn that they have resources and they find mentors right away and they see good role models instead of sort of just saying, ‘Well good luck’ then I think we'll have a much better chance of keeping those students in and helping them succeed in a way that improves the climate as well.

Larson:

Well I look forward to working with you on these issues as we go forward and make sure to follow @ShellyMBoulder on Twitter

Miller:

Thanks Phil it was really great to talk to you about these really important things. Thanks.

​Announcer:

This has been On CUE. For more information visit Colorado.edu/engineering.

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