Skip to main content

Alumna Reflects on Student Research Experience in Montana Mine

Approximately 3,000 feet beneath the surface of the earth, Emily Zamzow, recent Boise State Environmental and Occupational Health graduate, helps Dale Stephenson, professor and chair of the Department of Community and Environmental Health, place baskets filled with twelve or more instruments used to measure the amount of diesel exhaust in the air throughout a platinum mine in Montana.

Zamzow, a research assistant on Stephenson’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health grant, is involved with every aspect of the project. She works with experts in the field of Industrial Hygiene, including Stephenson, his co-principal investigator Chris Simpson, associate professor at the University of Washington along with co-investigator Sin Ming Loo, professor and chair of Boise State’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

[slider id=”dale-mine”][/slider]Zamzow assists with planning, collecting data in the mine, and analyzing the data after it has been collected. The research team has made two of four field campaigns to the mine to collect real-time air samples in the mine and urine samples from the miners. The final two will occur in August and October. The team was awarded their second year of funding in July to support the data analysis and synthesis.

Because of the nature of their work in confined spaces close to diesel-powered equipment, underground miners have the highest exposures to diesel exhaust of any occupation. Thus, miners are at high risk for suffering harmful health effects.

“I’ve learned so much in the eight months that I have been on this project. I never realized how much work goes into research. Everything from grant writing, to budgeting, to working with the university and vendors, are all things that never even crossed my mind as important parts of research. I’ve never had any experience doing all these extra, yet vital, parts of research,” Zamzow revealed. “I’m so lucky to have a mentor like Dr. Stephenson who involves me with these processes. I’m slowly learning the amount of detail that goes into federal grant funded research and getting funded isn’t just about going in the field and taking samples, there is so much more to it.”

“With so many different things going on, the most important lesson I’ve learned about research is that things don’t always go according to plan. It’s really important to be able to roll with the punches and not get bent out of shape if something goes wrong,” states Zamzow. “In a mine, with 20 different miners to keep track of, countless instruments to depend on and no natural light, something will go wrong. Things went wrong during the first two field campaigns and things will go wrong during the next two , I can almost guarantee it. When performing research, it is important to be able to step back, look at the situation and ask yourself ‘what can we do now?’ because getting upset about an instrument not working or a broken pump will not fix the situation.”

“Being in the mine is surreal. It will be pitch black, then all of a sudden, a sound will come from far down the tunnel, something will turn a corner, then head lights will be seen, a huge multi-ton vehicle will cruise by, turn another corner and all of a sudden it will be gone and it will be pitch black again,” said Zamzow. “Additionally, the environment can change so suddenly when traveling through the maze of tunnels, depending on the ventilation. One second it will be 30 degrees then we turn a corner and it will be 90 degrees and 95 percent humidity. It is such a unique place and I feel so lucky to be one of the few people to experience it.”

“I felt like I was on a movie set. I was wearing giant steel toed boots, a tool belt and even a hard hat with a headlamp on it. I walked into the ‘bull pen,’ where the miners congregate before and after the work shift, surrounded by some of the tallest, strongest and dirtiest people I have ever seen,” Zamzow reflected. “I soon learned that these people were some of the friendliest and most welcoming people. Most of the men are well over six feet tall, extremely strong and I was a little scared at first. Well every single one of these ‘scary’ people welcomed us with genuine smiles, told us hilarious jokes and did everything possible to make sure we were comfortable with what we needed. A mine seems like an intimidating place, but it has been the opposite. It has been incredible to work with such an amazing group of people.”

Zamzow has found that the assisting on the research project has given her more direction for her future. Her Environmental and Occupational Health degree “was very multifaceted with options to work in everything from food safety, to wastewater treatment, to air quality.”

Zamzow plans to attend graduate school: “This project has opened doors and taught me that there is so much more to learn. I’ve enjoyed gaining knowledge from this project, especially from the researchers at other universities. Because of this, I’m really excited to continue my education and continue to grow in the field of Industrial Hygiene.”

Zamzow urges students to not pass up opportunities to work with faculty researchers. “In fact, I would urge students to seek out faculty researchers to see if they could work on their project. I got a degree, took classes, read textbooks and studied, but none of that really prepared me for this project. Nothing is comparable to being in the field and seeing things first hand. I believe I’ve learned more on this project than I did my entire time in the classroom,” said Zamzow . “A hands on research project is an eye opening experience and very educational. School is important to gain the necessary background knowledge, but it’s not until I was able to apply that knowledge in the real world that I could appreciate why I had to learn all the information in college. Working with faculty researchers is an experience that had changed my whole outlook on the college experience and the main reason that I want to continue on to graduate school.”