Shelie Miller: Environmental Sustainability…and Roller Derby?

March 29, 2021
Written By:
Mike Wood

Portrait Photo: Doug Coombe. Roller Derby Photos: Dan Bachorik

Shelie Miller is an associate professor of environment and sustainable systems and is also the director of Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan, but don’t let her smile fool you, she’s also know as “Mean Josie Green!”


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Mike Wood: Welcome back to another episode of Michigan News Beyond the Headlines, the podcast that does just that takes you beyond the headlines to me. University of Michigan faculty in the news. I’m Mike Wood. I’m a video producer and host of the podcast here at Michigan News on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Shelie Miller is an associate professor of environment and sustainability here at the University of Michigan. She’s also the director of program in the environment, even though she’s a successful scientist in her day job.

Wood: Shelie’s success doesn’t stop there.


Wood: Well, just like she used to shake people up on the roller derby track, she likes to shake people up with her sometimes controversial research and via Zoom, she’s here with us now. Hi, Shelie.

Shelie Miller: Hi, Mike. It’s great to be here.

Wood: Well, last fall, I produced a video with you that focused on your research about misperceptions of plastic. And in that video, you talked about taking a life cycle, viewer life cycle assessment of products we consume. What do you mean by that?

Miller: So life cycle assessment is really taking a look at our products and really thinking of them as having very rich lives, understanding the environmental impacts throughout the entire life of our products and really trying to minimize the environmental impacts of a products life.

Wood: So basically, like instead of saying, OK, I have this plastic bottle and I’m going to recycle it and I know they’re going to make it into something great. It’s like looking at the factory that had to make that and the trucks that had to ship it in the water is that what you mean?

Miller: Exactly. And so it really is just trying to think of it’s not just, “Hey I have a plastic recycleable bottle and I have a glass bottle, you know which one is more recyclable or which one is going to be recycled by my facility”. That’s important. But it’s also important to realize, OK, how much materials and energy went into making that glass, how much materials and energy went into making that plastic. So it really is trying to think through all of those lifecycle stages, taking a holistic view rather than just the single view of what happens when I dispose or recycle something.

Wood: Well, that reminds me when we—when I did the video with you, you explained how reduce, reuse, recycle is a hierarchy like those things are, you know, in order of importance. And I never even realized that, you know, we think, oh, we recycle and that’s good. I recycle every week. But I never think of the- and I reuse things, too. But the reduced part, you know, I think is lost on a lot of people. Explain the hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle and how that fits into your lifecycle view.

Miller: Yeah, and I think that’s you know, so many people have that exact same perspective is it’s you know, we repeat the reduce, reuse, recycle, but then we just kind of get stuck on that last one and we say, oh, if I recycle, well, then I’m doing my part for the environment. And it really is really thinking through the three R’s in a much more hierarchical way of saying, “If you can possibly reduce what your consumption patterns are, do that. If you can’t reduce your consumption patterns, can you reuse the things that you have? And if all else fails, can you actually recycle the waste?”. And there’s certainly caveats to that making. There’s lots of ways to make that more complicated, but that’s the general idea. As consumers, recycling is the easy one though, right? I mean, if you have a recycling bin, we’ve created the infrastructure, you say, oh, I see that this actually will go in my recycling. And there I’ve done my part. Doing your environmental part is more than just recycling, and it really is simply thinking about that produced piece, and that’s so much harder to actually start thinking about what our consumer behavior is. And do we need all of the stuff that we actually buy rather than just saying, well, we’ll buy whatever we want and then recycle it later?

Wood: Your studies have generated a lot of buzz and push back and made people look at things a different way. Do you think it’s important to put things out there that maybe shake people up a little or kind of grab their attention, make them think in ways they hadn’t before?

Miller: Yes. If we can come up with a study that has a really good hook, it’s really useful to be able to start engaging those more deep conversations.

Wood: You’re an associate professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability here at the UofM, and also the director of Program in the Environment here. What do you do in that role and are you still teaching and doing your research?

Miller: I still continue to teach and do research because that’s the fun of being a college professor. But my role as director and program in the environment, it’s a program in the environment, it is an interdisciplinary undergraduate program. It really is a liberal arts education that spans all aspects of environment. And so it’s a great major and well that we offer a number of minors as well for students who are interested in environment broadly conceived and all of the different ways that the environment affects our lives.

Wood: So not necessarily somebody who’s a scientist or, you know, in the real science end of it, that they can kind of combine it with other things or?

Miller: So a lot of our students dual major with a science like Earth in Environmental Sciences or in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. So our faculty really do range across the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, engineering, art and design. So we actually bring faculty together from six different colleges across the university. It’s very cool and very unique. And so our curriculum really does show off the breadth of how environment interacts with our lives. And so that goes from a policy standpoint, but also really understanding the science of what’s happening in the environment.

Wood: Huh. That’s interesting. As director, what do you do in that role?

Miller: So I do a lot of administrative wrangling I would say. So because we pull faculty from so many different places and our students are—have so many wide variety of interests. A lot of it is program building. It’s really the behind the scenes piece, administrative pieces of making our programs run.

Wood: Cool. I know you told me that you usually teach at Camp Davis every summer. First of all, what and where is Camp Davis and what do you teach there?

Miller: Camp Davis is a phenomenal resource of the university. So it is a summer camp out west in Wyoming or Jackson Hole. It’s owned by the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. They offer a wide variety of field experiences there. I coteach a class up there in energy resources with my fellow instructors, and it really is looking at all of the complexities of our energy system. So Wyoming is great in the sense that it has oil and natural gas and wind and solar and hydro resources. And we take our classes to visit all of these facilities. We actually get to go on top of a fracking rig. We see coal being mined. We go inside of a wind turbine. But we also actually get to talk to the people in the communities that are part of this energy and the energy transition that’s happening. And so we get to go to coal country and actually talk to people who are losing their jobs in the transitions of coal. And so I think students get this really, really rich understanding of not just the environmental impacts of different energy resources, not just sort of the pen and paper definition of what an energy transfer means, but really get a sense of the actual people in stories and whose lives are being affected as we are moving toward a green energy system.

Wood: So as a as a bunch of college environmentalists running around, how do you get permission to go like on the fracking rig or the coal mine or all that? Do you get any pushback while you’re there?

Miller: You know, so we end up having some really good, rich conversations. And I think we’ve established a reputation over time that we do try to provide a really fair and balanced view of energy resources and really try to showcase what the communities really want to say. And so many people are actually really eager to talk to us. You know, the industries that do the fracking and the natural gas, they really want to show students up close what it actually means beyond maybe some of the knee jerk reactions you have. And so, like any energy resource, there are trade offs associated with fossil fuels and renewable energy. And the purpose of the class really is to showcase those trade offs to paint a full, complex picture, which I’m not sure that we always adequately represent.

Wood: So where did you grow up and what were you thinking of doing for a career when you were like 15 or 16?

Miller: Yeah, so I grew up in a sort of a blue collar suburb outside of Cleveland. You know, I really liked outdoor activities. You know, I grew up near a sort of community park growing up. I always liked riding my bike outside. My family did a lot of camping and so we would go camping on vacations. And so I always really liked being outdoors and experiencing environment. And I also really liked science as well. So I enjoyed my high school chemistry class and I was pretty good at math, as it turned out. So I was always interested in somehow figuring out a way to marry my interest in being outside and protecting the environment with also some technical science skills. And so that kind of led me to get a major in chemistry in college and it’s kind of gone from there.

Wood: So did you always expect to go to college or have you considered anything else?

Miller: I am a first generation college student. I did have two older brothers before me who also went to college and stayed in the area. So I think I always expected to go to college in some way just because I did really like learning. But I came from a community where only a third of my graduating high school class did go to college. So it wasn’t something that was necessarily expected of many of us. But I always kind of saw myself the the college role. And I think it has certainly been a track that I’ve appreciated pursuing.

Wood: That’s awesome. So I remember you telling me once that you were offered a job to do not go to college and maybe stay in your hometown? What was it?

Miller: Oh, my high school job was working at a garden center, and so they offered me an assistant manager position. I remember my dad telling me, you know, he’s like, “This is actually a really good offer. You might want to consider doing this”. And I said, “Ehh, I think I think maybe the college track is going to be where I stay”. But I think it could have fairly easily gone the other way and I could be managing garden centers somewhere right now, potentially.

Wood: I think the college thing works out pretty well so far.

Miller: I think it worked out just fine.

Wood: He also told me that your family are big Cleveland Browns football fans.

Miller: I grew up during the Kardiac Kids years. And for those of you who follow NFL football at all, that really ingrains in you as a kid. So some very heartbreaking losses in the playoffs, the eighties. You know, I have a Bernie Kosar jersey to this day and watch the Bruins every Sunday. And I will say as a long suffering Cleveland Browns fan, it seems like maybe, just maybe they might be around the corner. But we’ve said that a lot in the past decades.

Wood: As a Detroit Lions fan I totally understand where you’re coming from. You told me that your mom started college, you know, later in life. What did she do and what was your reaction to that when she said, I’m going to go to college?

Miller: So my mom was a homemaker most of my childhood and well into my high school years. I think I was the youngest in the family. And so as she saw her kids, you know, growing up and leaving the house and going into college, you know, I think she was trying to think about what the next phase of her life was. And so really, she started community college probably halfway through my high school experience, just doing a night class here and there. And, you know, at the time, I didn’t really think much of it. It was just something my mom was doing. But I think now I realized that she really started a new phase of her life, a totally new phase of her life. At about the stage of my career that I am now, which I think I really, truly appreciate a whole lot more now than I did then. And what a huge step that was, to go from starting is just sort of night classes at community college and really rethinking what a career was. So I’ve always thought that it was very cool, my mom. And so it always kind of thrown a wrench into whether or not I’m first generation college. If my mom actually graduated college after I did, you know, she started out doing class by class community college. She ended up getting an associate’s and then ended up enrolling in a four year program and ended up getting a Bachelor’s ultimately, which is incredibly cool. She worked as a social worker a number of years after we all left the house.

Wood: That is really cool, real inspiring. Who is Mean Josie Green?

Miller: Oh, Mean Josie Green, she’s been retired for a little while, but Mean Josie Green was my alter ego back when I played women’s flat track roller derby. So it’s—for those of you who are not familiar with roller derby, it is played entirely on roller skates, not roller blades, actual roller skates. And often people take on various personas. And mine was Mean Josie Green.

Wood: So I did not realize that roller derby was an actual sport. What’s, in a nutshell, kind of what’s the the goal of a a game, I guess? And are there any leagues around here or is it—how big of a deal is it?

Miller: Oh, roller derby is a huge deal and I can tell you it is very much a sport. So there’s a number of really great leagues in the area. Both Ann Arbor and Detroit have great leagues and very competitive leagues. But as far as how the actual sport is played, you have periods of up to two minutes of action at a time and there’s five players on a team that take the track. There’s only one player from each team who can score points and she’s called a jammer and she’s indicated by a star on her helmet. And the way you score points is by lapping players of the other team. And so the other members of your team are playing offense and defense simultaneously trying to help their jammer get through the pack and score points to other players while preventing the other jammer from breaking through and scoring points. So it ends up seeming like a lot of chaos out there for those individual jams. But I can tell you, there’s a lot of strategy and a lot of physicality and practice that goes into being able to play dirty.

Wood: How did you get started in that and how long did you do it for?

Miller: So I played for about four years. I started in a league in Greenville, South Carolina, when I was a professor at Clemson University and then played for a couple of years on the Detroit teams. And so I really got involved in derby because I felt like I had exhausted all of my other options in rural South Carolina, quite frankly. And so when you have run out of social options as living, you know, your late 20s in rural South Carolina and you see a flier that says, hey, there’s roller derby tryouts, you think I haven’t been on skates for probably 20 years? What’s the worst that could happen? And so, you know, I went to my first practice. I put on roller skates for the first time in decades and gave it a shot. And luckily, they took me on. I relearned how to skate and I learned all of the various hitting and certainly following drills in order to be able to be effective. And so I had a good four year career playing across the two leagues.

Wood: That’s wild. It seems like roller derbies always feature women. Are there leagues for men?

Miller: So there are-

Wood: Not that I’m interested in starting this.

Miller: Well, so I would say there’s a place for all genders in the derby. And so there are there are certainly male specific leagues. There are all gender leagues. And I think Women’s Flat Track is really the showcase of the Derby community, but it really does at least try to be very all inclusive sport.

Wood: That’s cool. I understand, you were awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. When did you receive that award and what did that honor mean to you?

Miller: It’s an incredibly great honor. I was awarded the it’s called PECASE Award. So the presidential early career award, it’s given up by the White House every year. I was fortunate enough to receive it in 2009 by the Obama administration. There’s some really, really cool memories of being able to go to the White House, actually meet Obama and shake his hands and really kind of get a sense of the community of, you know, early career folks going on and trying to make a difference in their various disciplines. But it was, it was very cool to be recognized with that.

Wood: That was really cool. When many people think of environmental scientists, they assume that you go out and you collect water, air samples and you go back to the lab for analysis. Is that the case or what do you actually do?

Miller: When I had a vision in my head of what I was going to be and what my career would be as an environmental scientist, what really did attract me was this idea of, you know, getting a Jeep and having a dog and going out and collecting stuff from the field and bringing it back. And there are many, many great environmental scientists who do exactly that. My career took a slightly different path. I was originally really interested in pollution and specifically I was really interested in hermaphroditic fish. So the idea that pollution was actually changing the sexual reproductive capacity of amphibians and fish. And so I wanted to understand this, and I wanted to understand how pollution was affecting these organisms and how we could actually clean up the pollution. And then I went to grad school and or I started looking around at grad schools and I met my advisor. And so I met who eventually became my advisor. And he said, yeah, that’s great. And lots of good people do that. And that’s really the research because like, you know, if you really want to change the world, you need to figure out how to not make that pollution in the first place. So, yes, you can figure out how to clean up the waste, but wouldn’t it be a whole lot better if we just didn’t make that waste in the first place? I was like, you know what? That would be better. And so that’s where I really ended up in my career. Is it really thinking through this idea of life cycle assessment and this idea of how do you actually not create pollution in the first place in order to minimize environmental impact before the environmental impact actually even occurs?

Wood: Is there any research you’re working on right now that you can share with us?

Miller: We’re working on a number of different studies that are looking at environmental impacts of products. And so, one of the pieces of research that we’re continuing is trying to really understand the environmental impacts of buying things online. And so it’s something that many of us have done a whole lot of during the past year. And what is the actual environmental impact of buying something from Amazon rather than a big box store? One thing I’m particularly interested in is the urban rural divide when it comes to buying things online.

Wood: How does one go about that? I mean, is it looking at downloaded data sets that people have compiled on, you know, miles of truck travel for a delivery company? Or how do you—how does one do that?

Miller: Yeah, it just ends up being a lot of math. And so my students tend to have lots of different spreadsheets going. And luckily there are some really well established databases. So we do have lots of data sets to build from. And sometimes we have to, you know, create our own primary data by going out and measuring or taking surveys of people.

Wood: Well, thank you for all your work that you do. I’m trying to find solutions to these environmental and sustainability problems. And thanks for sharing your story today. I really appreciate it.

Miller: Thanks so much, Mike. This has been great.

Wood: And thank you all for listening. I’d also like to thank the whole team here at Michigan News for their support of this podcast as we bring University of Michigan stories to the world. If you’d like to learn more about Shelie’s research or see the video I produced with her, click on the links in the episode description of this podcast. If you liked what you heard today and want to hear more inspiring stories, search for Michigan News Beyond the Headlines, wherever you get your podcasts. And remember to hit that subscribe button so you won’t miss an episode. I’m Mike Wood, be well, be safe and I’ll see you beyond the headlines.