CHATHAM – Since fourth grade, Nicole Smith wanted to be a marine biologist. Living in the Midwest, splitting her youth between St. Louis and Kansas City, posed a bit of a problem as far as access to the ocean was concerned.
When she went to Kansas State University, Smith studied fisheries and wildlife biology, concentrating on conservation and biodiversity, areas where she's ended up spending her career. Smith, a Brewster resident, has been on the job as Chatham's conservation agent for a month.
“It's definitely been a learning curve,” she said during an interview last week. Mostly she's been catching up on past cases, which “take some time to learn,” she noted, while also reviewing current and new requests for projects that trigger conservation review.
Chatham's conservation department is a bit busier than Harwich, where Smith began working as assistant conservation agent in 2016. She began there as a part-time assistant and transitioned to full-time as administrative duties were added to the position. Moving next door to Chatham was not something she had planned.
“I wasn't searching for jobs. I liked working in Harwich with Amy (Usowski), I was happy in my position,” she said. But when the job opened up, she decided to apply. “It's just the next step in my career. It made sense.” Smith was chosen out of 52 applicants for the position, said Health and Natural Resource Director Robert Duncanson.
Much of her work here is administrative, but she does get to go out on site visits, where she can assess the environmental impact of a project calling on her background in wildlife biology and conservation. She hopes to eventually transition the department away from paper and migrate its many cases files to the digital realm. Eventually she can see taking on some more “fun” projects like the recent Tour De Trash in Harwich.
Smith first made her way to Cape Cod after graduating from college. In spring 2009 she had an internship with the Student Conservation Association which brought her to the Cape Cod National Seashore helping a University of Rhode Island professor study horseshoe crabs in Pleasant Bay. Through the captain who drove their boat, she met her husband to be. After a brief internship at the Audubon Zoo in Louisiana, she returned to the Cape in October 2009. She worked with Mass Audubon as a plover monitor and in education outreach, informing beachgoers of the biological diversity of the area's beaches. She also worked as a plover monitor in Dennis and at the Eastham Veterinary Clinic before going to work for the Truro building, health and conservation departments, where she handled administrative duties. Before going to work in Harwich, she handled environmental permitting for engineers Ryder and Wilcox. She also served on the Brewster Conservation Commission, a position she left when she got the Chatham job.
With two young children – four-year-old William and eight-month-old Evelyn – Smith has her hands full outside of the office as well.
“Right now it's all about getting settled,” she said. Fellow staff members and applicants have been very helpful in orienting her and providing background, she added, and the members of the conservation commission have also been helpful. Chatham's commissioners are more hands-on than others she's worked for, in a good way.
“They definitely so the most work of any other commission I've been part of,” she said. “And I'm a lot busier with emails and questions about projects than I was in Harwich.”