Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Nick Skowronski

October 23rd, 2017 at 1:15PM

A photo of Nick Skowronski wearing a red firefighter helmet and yellow fire shirt.
Nick Skowronski, a wildland fire research scientist with the USFS Northern Research Station

It’s been a record-setting year of wildfires, and researchers like Nick Skowronski are learning more than ever before about the dynamics of wildland fires. Skowronski was exposed to fire and fire management right out of college, and he has never looked back. Now a wildland fire research scientist with the Northern Research Station in Morgantown, West Virginia, he continues to research and study wildfires.

What led you to the Forest Service and when did you start working here?

I remember telling people that I wanted to work on the Allegheny National Forest, which was relatively close to my home in Freeport, Pennsylvania.  But I never actively planned for that to happen. My path started in childhood. I was hiking around, playing sports, being involved with scouting, and enjoying math and science in school. I had a wonderful experience living in coastal Maine during my junior year of high school through the Chewonki Foundation’s Maine Coast Semester, and this really cemented my path. The goal in my family was to get me to college, and I hadn’t really considered what I would actually be doing to make a living. Environmental Science seemed like a good track, especially after one of my professors told me that they could “use students that knew how to start a generator.” My first “real” job was as a Natural Resource Specialist at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where I think I was hired mostly because I could both run heavy equipment and had a degree. There I was exposed to fire and fire management, and I never looked back.

I was hired by the Northern Research Station as a Research Technician in 2003. I went back to graduate school while I was working and earned a Ph.D. in ecology from Rutgers University and eventually became a research forester with the Forest Service.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My job is amazing because of the variety of things that I get to do and the amazing people that I get to work with. I am still able to work outside, with much of the time spent doing fireline experiments. When I’m not outside, I get to dream. I work with an amazing group of scientists from all over the world, and we spend a good bit of time figuring out the most pressing problems in wildfire and designing experiments to answer these questions. I love the creativity and the ability to still work with my hands while really engaging my brain.

But I think that my favorite part of the job is being part of the wildfire community. Through the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange, I have been able to meet so many passionate folks in the Northeast U.S. and the rest of the country. I also still love being a part of a wildland fire hand crew when I can get West. Finally, I am so lucky to be working with many of the same fire managers on our experiments that I have known since I was managing fire at Ft. Dix early in my career.

Who or what inspired you growing up?

I was inspired to value hard work at a very early age. I was raised in a blue-collar family, and my parents decided that they wanted to provide opportunities for their children that they hadn’t necessarily had access to. They did this by putting their heads down and working until they met that goal. Teddy Roosevelt is held in high regard by many of us working in natural resources, and it’s a quote from him that has been the most inspirational to me: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” My dad cut that quote out of a magazine and gave it to me when I was a teenager, and I’ve carried it in my wallet for the last 20 years.

A photo of the Skowronski family, Susie, Will, Charlie and Nick at a Pirates baseball game
Go Pirates! The Skowronski family – (clockwise) Susie, Will, Charlie and Nick at a Pirates game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

My wife Susie and I have two little boys, Will and Charlie. The four of us, and sometimes our dog Sophie, love to hike at Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Now that our boys are getting to be not-so-little, we spend most of our “free time” with them at swim, soccer, t-ball, basketball, Cub Scouts… or whatever the latest and greatest activity is. When the grandparents step in and take the kids for a few nights, Susie and I love to explore new cities together.

What is your highest personal and professional achievement?

My family is easily my highest personal achievement. Very easily.

I was entrusted by several of my colleagues to lead a team that submitted a proposal to the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program to study wildland fire behavior in the laboratory and in the field. The project was funded with a large budget for several years. It is a complex study because the work is being conducted at six universities and several field locations. It is a great project and will really help us to provide many of the answers that we are seeking, but I am most proud that people I looked up to trusted me to lead the effort.

How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?

I’d like people to recognize that we, as public servants, are embracing the Roosevelt quote and “work(ing) hard at work worth doing.”

What are your future career goals?

I see two paths for myself at this point, both very promising but very different. I could stay a scientist and continue my research program for the next 20 years or so. Or I could switch into a leadership track that would allow me to stay in research or potentially move to State and Private Forestry or into the National Forest System. My wife and I are very content to stay at that crossroads for the foreseeable future.

A photo of Nick Skowronski talking with a group outside, surrounded by trees, about Joint Fire Science Grants and the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program
Nick Skowronski talks with a group about Joint Fire Science Grants and the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program grant in the Penn State Forest in the New Jersey Pinelands. Skowronski was supporting a field trip for the Joint Fire Science Program Governing Board, which was hosted by the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange in October 2016

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?

Follow your passion. The career paths in the Forest Service are very diverse, and passion and persistence are the keys to finding a fit. Don’t be limited to a specific place. Do what you love to do.