For most people, the first person they talk to or hear from at the Rhode Island Natural History Survey is Program Administrator, Kira Stillwell. Kira not only answers phones, sends email blasts, manages memberships and organizes Survey events, she is the bookkeeping, human resources, and payroll department as well. It is safe to say she has a hand in just about every project the Survey undertakes.
“I visualize this pegboard with about eight different hats hanging on it, and when I walk in the door in the morning I put a hat on,” she said. “On a good day I wear two or three hats, and on a crazy day I wear all eight of them. But it’s an absolutely perfect job for me because I never get bored.”
Kira took a round-about path to the Survey. She earned a master’s degree in exercise physiology and worked in the cardiology department at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket and at the University of Rhode Island’s Cancer Prevention Research Center before becoming Program Administrator for the Survey in 2004. Several years previously she founded the Rhode Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an international non-profit focused on ocean conservation, water quality and coastal access. Serving 6 years on Surfrider Foundation’s national board of directors led Kira to make a conscious effort to refocus her career on environmental issues.
Although she admits she has no formal ecological training, Kira’s father Charles Stillwell was a shark biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Narragansett for many years so she grew up exposed to and engaged with the natural world in a wide variety of ways.
“My work with Surfrider put me I touch with all sorts of people at NOAA/NMFS, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Graduate School of Oceanography, many of whom knew my dad and whom I grew up with,” she recalled. “That helped lead me to the Survey, and it was clear early on that the people were great and there was a great possibility of making a difference at the local level.”
When asked about her preferred natural history taxonomical group to learn about, she says she’s “a water girl” whose favorite ecological zone is the shore and marine environment.
“I’m not as much of a forest kind of person,” she admits. “But every time I see swallows, I always get this ‘Wow!’ feeling. They’re amazing acrobats in the air. They fly like I surf – carving arcs all over the wave.”
The mother of a rising sixth-grader who Kira claims is “a pretty damn good naturalist,” Kira also plays mom to a flock of bantam chickens, dotes over a large vegetable garden, and continues to serve as treasurer of the RI Chapter of Surfrider Foundation.
One of the most enjoyable parts of her job at the Survey is the many interesting and unusual phone calls that she fields from people looking for the identification of a plant or animal they observed or from those looking to protect a species they have stumbled upon. “There’s a great curiosity out there. I love encouraging that and scrambling around trying to help people find an answer,” she said.
But what she likes most is the sense of community- a family of sorts, that the Survey creates among a wide variety of Rhode Island individuals and organizations.
“I feel like the Survey is the hub of a wagon wheel, and all the other organizations and individuals are around the outside. When someone calls and says ‘I found a plant, what should I do with it,’ we either keep it in-house to find an answer or we send it off to a more appropriate place. We have a growing community of naturalists and professionals that engage with us across the spectrum of any given year. It’s a great place to be.”