Crashing waves dislodge seashells from a young girl's sandy fingers along the Jersey Shore. She joyously laughs and gazes at nature's beauty with minimal interest in the nearby carnival music, state-of-the-art rides, or iconic boardwalk behind her. Amidst spending hours in the Atlantic Ocean, young Danielle Szimanski knew then that she wanted to be an environmentalist.
Fast forward years later, Szimanski found herself as a freshman History major longing for a rekindled interconnection with nature – which she again discovered at the Chesapeake Bay watershed while attending Chestertown, Maryland's Washington College.
Quickly refocusing her talents, she earned a bachelor's in Environmental Studies and a master's in Environmental Science. Now, her environmental protection passions continue daily – uniquely operating as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineering With Nature (EWN) Coastal Practice lead and USACE Baltimore District project manager and ecologist.
"I love the peaceful feeling of being in nature and how interconnected the entire environment is," said Szimanski, who hails from northwest New Jersey, near the Delaware Water Gap's mountainous and farmland region. "Not only with nature itself, but with people as well. As a child, I was always interested in science classes and how nature works. Preserving the natural world is essential because we are all still a part of the natural world."
As part of Women's History month, Szimanski is a beacon of hope for women pursuing leadership roles. Her trailblazing path helps showcase how women advance, evaluate, and communicate environmental science that informs impactful decisions to protect the environment now and into the future.
Szimanski hopes to deepen communities' ability to intersect connections throughout nature to learn how the entire ecosystem works, how essential individual elements are and how they build upon each other. By operating for USACE and Engineering With Nature, she has the perfect platform to do just that.
"As a USACE ecologist and project manager, I help make improvements to the existing environment," Szimanski said. "I work on shallow draft dredging projects and focus on beneficial use of dredged sediment. I've also designed and completed dredging projects in the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland's Coastal Bays, leading to island creation, wetland restoration, and small-scale beach renourishment. Additionally, I also have experience with multiple planning studies, including water resource studies, Regional Sediment Management studies, and Continuing Authorities Program studies, as well as sediment sampling analysis studies, and oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay."
As an Engineering With Nature Coastal Practice lead, Szimanski also supports EWN field implementation across the USACE enterprise.
“My role is to assist EWN program managers in overcoming implementation hurdles across districts in regulatory, design, funding, and policy issues. We collaborate with USACE district counterparts, existing experts, and working groups to determine the best ways to implement EWN initiatives.”
No Easy Path
Whether she's helping to enhance the Baltimore District's Navigation Mission to support safe marine traffic, commerce, and national security, or facilitating interagency communication and collaboration across USACE to advance EWN practices and field-scale applications, the concurrent leadership roles don't come without unique challenges.
"One of our biggest obstacles that we as EWN practice leads are attempting to solve is providing more opportunities across the Corps to implement Engineering with Nature in projects," said Szimanski. "The practice leads want to make the EWN Program and its research to support future projects more accessible to all districts across the Corps and make this information available at the project manager and study manager level."
Szimanski credits the coastal practice lead role for broadening her perspectives on nature-based solutions.
"This role has helped expand my ecological knowledge that I normally would not get exposure to here on the Chesapeake Bay," Szimanski said. "Working with other practice leads and Engineering With Nature leaders and researchers from different parts of the country, especially the center of the country, has provided me new details on the problems and solutions they use in projects and Engineering with Nature.
"Engineering with Nature means a cultural shift of no longer ‘fighting against’ nature but using our understanding to improve societal needs," Szimanski added. "Being able to understand the way sediment flows and how wetlands reduce flooding, in the long run, will bring us closer to nature and able to work with the systems that have been around for millennia. Containing nature, say with a concrete wall for flood reduction, won't work everywhere. If we use nature's energies and processes in tandem with society's needs, we will create the greatest outcome and benefit."
Mission Accomplished: Changing the Narrative
Long ago, Szimanski couldn't imagine where her outdoorsy adventures near the Poconos Mountains would ultimately take her. However, she's happy that she chose her gut instinct to pursue environmental affairs and boldly continues changing the narrative for women in power and empowering others with a passion for nature.