Published: July 1, 2015

For several days in January this year, Beijing was shrouded in a thick yellow haze when the city recorded exceptionally high levels of air pollution.

Exposure to air pollution is getting worse in parts of the world, says the World Health Organization. While nowhere near Beijing’s extreme pollution levels, a number of cities in the United States are considered “cities of interest” by WHO. Air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths each year in the U.S., according to a recent study.

Shelly Miller, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and a faculty member of the interdisciplinary Environmental Engineering Program, hopes to eliminate that threat.

Miller teaches courses at CU-Boulder in environmental, mechanical and air pollution control engineering. Her research focus is urban air quality and the exposures and health effects of air pollution inside buildings and homes, as well as outside in communities and cities.

“We’re exposed to air pollutants every day, which can shorten our lives considerably depending on the levels,” she said. “Understanding that link and how we can improve air quality and the quality of our health is important to me.”

Miller derives great satisfaction from solving an air problem for a family or a community. A nonprofit agency in Denver contacted her about investigating complaints about a noxious odor in a group of homes in the city. The odor was bad enough that people were concerned for their health and some were moving out.

She had one of her classes conduct a pilot project to assess the situation. They wrote an Environmental Protection Agency research grant and did a year’s study to find the source of the problem.  Their conclusion was that the source was a local industry and further work was needed to reduce exposures.

“I am proud of my contribution, I’m helping families,” she said. “The goal of my work is to disseminate new knowledge so the EPA and other agencies can use it to develop guidelines to promote good indoor and outdoor air quality.”

Growing up in Southern California at a time where the air was quite polluted, Miller became interested in a healthy lifestyle. Her interest in air pollution developed in graduate school when she began working with a professor who was studying indoor air quality.

“I was intrigued that air pollution was such a big problem, but it wasn’t that obvious to the average person,” she said. “We all need to breathe clean air. With water pollution, people think they can just drink bottled water, but you cannot stop breathing air.”

Although she worked for a time as an engineer, Miller chose a career in academia because of her love of learning and the enjoyment she gets from working with students in a university environment. She was the second person and second female to be hired (in 1998) in air quality and mechanical engineering at CU-Boulder.

“Sometimes you don’t know the path you’re on until later and then it all makes sense,” she said.

During a recent talk she gave to the Department of Mechanical Engineering Department titled “Musings of a Female Engineering Professor: Lessons I’ve Learned,” Miller spoke about her career experiences with her typical sense of humor and passion.

An example she gave on the push-pull of work and life was the adoption of her daughter while she was on sabbatical. Miller chose not to pursue publishing one of her projects during that time so she could focus on bonding with the baby.

Married to a consulting engineer, with a son, 11, and a daughter, 6, Miller realizes there is no perfect work-life balance, although she has found ways to deal with stress.

Occasionally Miller will slip into an empty classroom for a few minutes of yoga or spend five minutes meditating in her office. It’s also not unusual to see her riding her bike across campus regardless of the weather.

“It’s important to me to be a symbol for young women in this field, to inspire them to continue in science and engineering,” she said. “You can have a family and do the work you love. You don’t have to choose one or the other. I want to show them that I did it my way and they can do it their way and be proud.”