As a girl growing up in Sidney, Nicole “Cola” Rowley was encouraged to dream big. She took her parent’s advice and left for Utah, where she earned her doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology.
Since then, Rowley – now 31 – has become a mother twice over, maintained an 11-year marriage to a chemist, and won a tight election to become a Missoula County commissioner.
Through it all, she looks back on the advice of her parents and maintains an optimistic outlook for the future.
“My dad owned a business and my mom was a teacher,” Rowley said. “They always just believed in me and thought I could do anything.”
Rowley’s travels from her Sidney roots have taken her down an ambitious path. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Dickenson State University and her doctorate from the University of Utah.
Her research focused on drug development for neurological disorders.
“After I got my Ph.D., I wanted to come back to Montana,” she said. “I did my post-doc at Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, working on neurological immunology.”
Rowley did the work for a year, but she longed to be more active in the community.
She took a job at Early Head Start before funding cuts sent her looking for a new job. She found it as an environmental health specialist working for Missoula County.
The position introduced her to the structure of local government and the role it plays for community residents. It also sparked her interest in leadership, and she prepared to make a run for the Lolo Community Council.
It was then, as she knocked on doors during the early days of her campaign, that people asked her to think bigger. She was encouraged to run for Missoula County commissioner.
“I’d thought about it, but I also thought it was a pretty bold step,” she said. “But it seemed like the timing was right.”
Rowley and Donald Davies, both Democrats, faced incumbent commissioner Michele Landquist in last year’s June primary. Rowley won the primary and squared off against Republican Vicky Gordon in November’s general election.
Rowley watched the election play out at Brooks and Brown. When the night ended, she’d won 53 percent of the vote.
“It worked out,” she said. “I love what I do now. I feel like I’m making a difference for the larger society.”
With six months under her belt as a new commissioner, Rowley is looking to engage with the public, despite the necessity of sitting in countless meetings that keep her and other commissioners sequestered.
“The job has a lot of challenges, and they’re new challenges to me in unexpected ways,” she said. “Sitting in our little meeting room becomes insular. It would be easy to become complacent and lose touch, and I don’t want to do that.”