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Matt Hill: NC DEQ Environmental Specialist in Air Quality

Why did you choose to work for NC Department of Environmental Quality?

I wanted to work for NC DEQ because I wanted a job where I knew the work I was doing was making an impact on people’s lives. The work I am doing promotes cleaner air in North Carolina, something that impacts every single person every single day. Seeing the direct impacts of my work on a day to day basis is what drove me to want to work for the environmental regulatory field.

What responsibilities are included in your position?

My position as an Environmental Specialist with DAQ gives me the opportunity to work in a few different areas of Air Quality. My job tasks are split into ambient monitoring, compliance, and citizen complaints. The Ambient Monitoring portion includes operating ambient air monitors in our region, and ensuring they are running properly and verifying the data we collect. My compliance tasks include visiting facilities that have air permits and ensuring the conditions that are set in their permits are being followed and there are no excess emissions. The final portion of my job is citizen complaints, which requires me to address concerns from the public regarding open burnings, odors, or other air quality issues. This often requires field visits to meet, interact, and inform citizens with the North Carolina air quality rules. The diverse and unique work experiences I can have on any given day keeps the job interesting and challenging.

What is a typical day of work like for you?

Since I am one of three monitoring staff in our office, my day begins with verifying the previous days data from our monitors and ensuring our nightly precision checks are within specs. If we discover any issues at our sites, or priority for that day changes to responding to those problems and often field visits to investigate. This thankfully does not happen that often, so the ability to set a schedule of what you would like to do and when you want to do tasks is one of my favorite parts of working for DAQ. If you would like to do all your field work Monday-Wednesday and do your report writing at the end of the week, you can schedule it that way. If you would like to split things up in different ways, you are more than able to do it that way. My typical day will often depend on what is happening during that week. During summer months our monitors are in full swing, so visiting the sites to conduct maintenance and verifications takes up most of the days. The rest of the year is filled with inspections, when you chose to go do them, and complaints as they come in.

What do you like the most about working for NCDEQ?

Two things, from two different angles.

I like the ever-changing work, and the ability to create your own work schedule. No two facilities are the same. No two complaint investigations are the same. You never know what you will find or see, so having a strong understanding of rules/regulations and being ready to act quickly is a must. The flexibility to create your work schedule and work speed is one of the biggest perks of my job, and it’s something I feel like I was never able to do until working for DAQ.

The second part of my job that I really enjoy is being able to see firsthand the impacts that the work I am doing is creating. The data collected from the monitors I operate is used to create the regions Air Quality index (the one you see on the news) – which is very closely watched by the public. Creating accurate and quality data in my day to day work can have direct impacts on people’s day to day lives. Going out on inspections of facilities that emit also allows us to ensure the permitted rules are being followed, and that facilities are not emitting more than permitted. Just knowing the wide range of impacts my day to day work tasks have is what drives me.

What advice do you have for NC State students looking to work at an organization like NCDEQ?

Don’t give up if you don’t get an interview or contacted back the first time applying. The process can sometimes be very slow, so be prepared to wait and do not get discouraged if you don’t immediately hear back. Make sure you are qualified for the job you are applying for and can back up your claim with experience.

How did your experience at NC State help you find a job after graduation? What initial steps did you take when you were looking for a job?

NC State gave the opportunity to take a wide variety of science classes which broadened my understanding of the field of work I was going into. I was given the ability to take anything from soil science to US environmental law and politics to plant biology. Having a broad understanding of the Environmental Sciences field allowed me to explore all different directions of career paths, but at the same time let me hone in on the specific areas I was interested in.

My initial job search was one that I would not recommend to anyone at all. I was searching for jobs that I was barely qualified for, and really shooting for the stars on some jobs. This ended up landing me with very few calls back, and no prospects upon graduation.  I eventually realized that those jobs I was applying for were not going to happen immediately, and ultimately took on a few contract jobs across the triangle. That decision ended up allowing me to add valuable job experience to my resume, and I had hands on experience with the field. This immediately opened the doors to opportunities that I was trying to force open before. Accepting that the path to success wasn’t a straight shot, but more of a ladder with different sized steps was the most difficult thing to accept after I graduated.

Name a class you took at State that you took the most away from?

SSC 455: Soils, Environmental Quality and Global Challenges

This is the one class I look back on and feel like I took the most away from. I pulled the description from the course catalog and added it below:

As the world population grows to 9 billion people by 2050, we will be pressed to increase food security, respond to the consequences of a changing climate, and improve human health — all while protecting the environment and maintaining natural resources. Soils play a critical role in many of these challenges. The goal of this course is to teach students how soils regulate environmental quality through a host of chemical, physical and biological processes. We will examine a series of global challenges, assess their related environmental issues and policies, and analyze the roles of soils in each issue.

The course took a different approach to environmental issues, and really required you to think outside of the box for solutions to many different angles to the course. I recall one part of the class was to determine the short term and long-term impacts of soils, energy production, population, water quality, food security, human waste management, and air quality to the farming and production of rice in southeast Asia. It took the sciences and concepts I had learned so far and created very realistic real-world scenarios that are currently happening.

Side note: I would 100% recommend that course to anyone in the sciences field. It was the class that really showed me that the things I had learned in college could and needed to be applied to the real world, and then forced me to apply the knowledge. The course was taught by Matt Pollizzotto, which unfortunately looks like he left NC State and is now at Oregon.

While you were at State what was your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge at NC State, and ultimately my best decision in college as well, was switching majors. I began as a Biology major, and after 2.5 years – in the middle of Junior year, switched my major to Environmental Science. It was challenging because I was going into an entirely different college on a different part of campus that I was on before, and all new people that I did not know. By doing this though, I was in a major I enjoyed, taking courses I enjoyed, and my GPA in my new major was much higher than the previous major – which I truly believe was caused by taking classes that I really enjoyed and was interested in. I recall thinking it was a mistake right after I changed the major, but I was able to quickly realize that it was the best decision I made while at NC State.