Published: May 24, 2022 By

Jana Milford

After nearly three decades serving the College of Engineering and Applied Science, Professor Jana Milford is set to retire August 2022.

Milford has held many titles during her distinguished career – from Department of Mechanical Engineering Chair and the first director of the Environmental Engineering Program, to founding faculty advisor for the Engineering GoldShirt Program. Each position has had a profound impact on faculty, staff and students.

“I hope that I’ve been a constructive part of the community,” said Milford. “I value the range of people, backgrounds and skills that are appreciated. Maybe I can take some credit for that as I’m not a traditional mechanical engineer myself, from having expertise in air quality to the fact that I went out and got a law degree.”

These contributions are some of the accomplishments that Milford is most proud of, though the impact of her work reaches beyond the college. As a leading air quality researcher and public policy advocate, Milford’s achievements have helped strengthen our knowledge of air pollution and shape legislation that benefits us all.

“Professor Milford’s research and service have had huge positive impacts on how we view energy impacts on the environment and climate,” said Department of Mechanical Engineering Chair Michael Hannigan. “As someone that had the fortune to collaborate on several research projects with Jana, I owe a lot to her dedication to high quality research and effective communication of that research.” 

Inspiration to become a mechanical engineer

Milford’s inspiration to study engineering goes back to a high school philosophy class where students discussed the challenge that society faces in managing rapid technology advances.

The class piqued her interest in pursuing science journalism, but once she started coursework at Iowa State University, Milford discovered that engineering was a better fit. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and left Iowa to attend Carnegie Mellon University for graduate school.

Jana Milford

After earning her PhD in engineering and public policy in 1988, Milford began working for the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment – the government body that Congress would go to for nonpartisan studies on science and technology.

“I was there when they were working on the Clean Air Act amendments that eventually passed in 1990,” said Milford. “We also did a study on climate change, which was one of the earliest ones for the federal government. It was a great experience in Washington, DC.”

Milford knew she wanted to move into academia and accepted a position to teach at the University of Connecticut. She was there for four years until the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Mechanical Engineering was looking for an air quality expert to join their team in 1994.

“Colorado was kind of a Mecca for people who conducted air quality and atmospheric science research,” said Milford. “I was very excited to apply and even more excited when I got the position.”

Creating opportunities for others

Four years after joining the mechanical engineering department, Milford became the first director of the Environmental Engineering Program. She said she’s proud to have launched that program and to have inspired faculty and students from multiple departments to get involved.

“Jana was instrumental to building the air quality program in our department as well as the broader environmental engineering program in the college,” said Mechanical and Environmental Engineering Professor Daven Henze. “Simply put, I don’t think I’d have a job here if it wasn’t for her!”

One of the successes that Milford is happiest to see is how many women-identifying students are studying environmental engineering. More than 50% of the students in the program are female.

“Those students are just so passionate about the field and what they want to accomplish in terms of helping the world,” said Milford. “It’s very inspiring to work with them.”

Engineering GoldShirt Program team

Milford continued those efforts when she became the founding faculty advisor for the college’s Engineering Goldshirt Program, which provides an engineering pathway for students who are historically underrepresented in engineering.

“I think that culture has a really profound impact on diversity in the undergraduate student population at CU Boulder,” said Milford. “It means a lot to me to have been involved in that program.”

Milford also worked to grow diversity within the Department of Mechanical Engineering as the chair, from July 2013 to June 2014, and longtime member of the personnel committee. She said she’s glad to see more female faculty in the department, because when she first joined, there were only two women faculty members. She was one of them.

Today, there are more than 20 female-identifying faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Each one that works closely with Milford sung her praises, adding that she has always given them unwavering support.

“Jana has not only been a leader in air quality research and policy for decades, helping improve our ability to identify successful mitigation of air pollution, but is also an incredible mentor and role model,” said CIRES Associate Director for Science Christine Wiedinmyer, who is also a research professor in mechanical engineering. “I would not be where I am today without her positive influence and am fortunate to have her as a colleague and friend.”

Air quality research and public policy

Always keeping the intersection of technology and society in mind, Milford went back to school and earned a law degree from CU Boulder in 2004. She has also served on various state and federal commissions that inform policymakers about air quality.

Milford worked as a Senior Scientist and Staff Attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, was previously a member of the Board of Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Academy of Sciences and the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and recently finished three terms on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission.

Milford continues to dedicate herself to public policy by participating in the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit that funds research on the health effects of air pollution. Milford is on the review committee for that organization.

“Health Effects Institute gives me an opportunity to stay steeped in the latest research about air pollution and health, which is always fascinating,” said Milford. “It continues to evolve. The range of health impacts that air pollution has is pretty incredible.”

Jana Milford

Milford credits her colleagues and graduate students when it comes to her air quality research. However, they all give the credit back to her, expressing that they greatly benefit from her guidance.

“Jana has actively supported not only me in my profession, helping me to succeed with her mentoring and by example, but she has also supported so many other undergrad and graduate students to reach for their dreams and successfully become the environmental engineers, mechanical engineers and air quality researchers of the future,” said Mechanical and Environmental Professor Shelly Miller.

Milford added that she has enjoyed how air quality research and energy transitions have intertwined over the last decade, which has led to great project opportunities for those students.

Some examples are a study on the air quality impacts of oil and gas development in Colorado, as well as the implications of electric vehicles on air pollution with the ASPIRE Engineering Research Center.

Continuing to make a difference

Of all the things that Milford will miss, she said that teaching will be at the top of the list. Her colleagues will miss her teaching as well.

“I have greatly enjoyed learning how she mentors students; she provides a lot of framing and guidance but still lets them develop as independent researchers and communicators,” said Hannigan. “As an academic leader, she has had lasting impacts on both environmental and mechanical engineering.” 

Milford is considering sitting on the other side of the classroom during retirement, as a student taking courses at CU Boulder, to continue learning new things. She said she also plans to go on more hikes, do more gardening, and spend more time with her husband.

However, even in retirement, Milford does not intend on stopping her impactful work for the community. She plans to volunteer and do pro bono work for environmental groups.