Siblings enjoying ‘green’ academic success

Peggy Revell

A passion for the environment has led to district siblings Aimee and Nathan Pelletier to trade in the lakes and rivers of Northwestern Ontario for the Atlantic Ocean.
The pair, who grew up just north of Stratton, currently are finding academic success and making inroads towards improving the environment while completing their Master’s and PhD degrees, respectively, at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“I’m working for Parks Canada and I’m developing, basically, an ecological monitoring program for Kejimkujik National Park,” Aimee Pelletier said of her studies towards a Master of Environmental Studies.
“Basically what it’s doing is it’s setting up a program so that we can monitor the ecological health of the coastal park, so things like salt marshes and eel grass and water quality,” she explained.
Pelletier arrived at Dalhousie after finishing an undergraduate degree in ecology from the University of British Columbia, as well as a B.Ed for teaching high school.
For her Master’s, she was recognized with the Julie Payette Awards from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which is given to only 24 applicants from across Canada.
The importance of protected areas like national and provincial parks are why she chose the area of study, Pelletier noted, adding Parks Canada is a great organization to work with.
“I have, obviously, an environmental interest in terms of conserving biodiversity, and ensuring, in particular, that protected areas are basically conserving what they’re supposed to,” she remarked. “Because lots of external stressors that affect them. They aren’t isolated.
“We always think that you put something in a protected area, it’s going to be protected,” Pelletier said. “But you have things like acid rain, invasive species coming from elsewhere, and then, of course, human influence, lots of visitors and whatnot.”
It was the chance to see a new ocean, and the heritage of the Maritimes, that drew her to the East Coast, she noted, as well as the chance to be close to her older brother, who already was completing his PhD studies at Dalhousie.
Nathan Pelletier admitted his own journey from Northwestern Ontario to Dalhousie is not particularly a “grandiose” story, beginning with completing an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
“I went into biology somewhat naively thinking that biology would be a good platform for a professional level of environmental activism,” he said about his undergraduate years. “And I was fairly frustrated as I did that degree because I felt that my studies were really abstracted from the real world.
“So when I chose my graduate path, I wanted to be doing research that could be directly applied to re-evaluating and restructuring how we organize ourselves, politically and economically, so that we don’t create these massive environmental challenges that are symptomatic of the last 50 years of globalization generally,” he remarked.
Following his undergraduate degree, Pelletier said the number of potential supervisors in his field of interest was “quite narrow” and that best person to work with in North America was across the continent at Dalhousie.
There, Pelletier completed his Master of Environmental Studies, (MES) and has now gone on to working on his PhD studies under Dr. Peter Tyedmer.
“Basically I’m studying ecological economics, and ecological economics is a field that is concerned with understanding the environmental dimensions of our economic activity,” he explained. “Because we’re increasingly aware that economic models only tell us so much—they rarely tell us very much about the environmental dimensions of what we do.
“That’s why we’re running into problems like climate change and ozone depletion and whatnot.”
Within this field, Pelletier is focusing on society’s food systems.
“Essentially I study material and energy flows through global food systems, and how those material and energy flows contribute to macro scale environmental change,” he noted.
“By macro scale change, I mean through resource depletion and through emissions of globally-problematic chemicals, like greenhouse gases or acid precipitants or ozone-depleting chemicals.”
For example, Pelletier currently is collaborating with researchers at Iowa State University and using a tool called “life cycle assessment” to study resource use and emissions that exist in U.S. beef production.
In what’s called a “cradle to grave” analysis, they are looking at all the material and energy used within that system—from the production of fertilizer and pesticides that are used for the cattle’s food up to the beef being consumed by people.
Both siblings credit their parents with inspiring a love of the environment.
“Because I did grow up in the country, because my parents always took us out canoeing and encouraged us to sort of explore outside, I think that really influenced it, sort of the environmental aspect of wanting to conserve things,” Aimee Pelletier said.
The family did a lot of canoe trips in areas like Quetico Provincial Park and the lakes up near Kenora, she added—one thing she misses now that she’s far away.
Their parents don’t have a “vociferous activist slant” when it comes to the environment, her brother said, but hold a “very mature ecological philosophy.”
“And they certainly raised us in a very healthy and natural context,” he added. “We lived in quite a remote setting . . . the closest neighbour was a couple of kilometres away, so we grew up in fairly intimate contact with our surroundings [and] the changing seasons.”
“I don’t think one can help but be profoundly impacted by that.”
Aimee hopes to complete her thesis and defend it this May. After that point, she will be moving back to Victoria since she is getting married this summer and her partner has been hired as a professor at the University of British Columbia.
“A lot of the time I wish I was closer home,” she admitted. “One of the things is my parents have a very beautiful property north of Stratton, I think it’s about 300 acres, lots of nice gardens, it’s really well-forested.
“So I just miss spending time at home, especially in the summer.
“Ideally, I would love to retire to my parents’ place, it beautiful there,” she added, although returning to Northwestern Ontario depends on what her partner is doing and what job opportunities there would be.
And while Nathan said he loves to come back to visit with family and friends, especially in the summer, he noted he doesn’t know what he would do here professionally.
When he is done his PhD and defends it by April, 2010, he plans to look for a tenure track position at a university.
“I think I’ll stay in academia,” Pelletier said. “I feel like I’ve tapped into a field of research that is expanding so rapidly, it’s so topical to grappling with these challenges that we confront, that I think I’ve got a whole lifetime of research laid out in front of me.”
He’s also been fortunate to receive monetary support for his research and studies through various grants, including a Killam and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council scholarships while doing his Master’s, as well as an NSERC and President’s Award for his PhD studies.
“I’ve certainly been fortunate in the level of support I’ve had in pursuing my graduate studies through various scholarships and research stipends,” he conceded. “It really is a privilege to have access to research funding because it essentially frees me to focus all of my time and energy on research.
“It’s fantastic.
“There is so much good work to be done, there’s so much interesting work to be done,” he enthused in hopes of encouraging anyone interested in pursuing similar research and studies.
“I was down at a conference in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference,” Pelletier noted, adding this one conference had roughly 10,000 attendees.
“Al Gore was giving the keynote address—of course, he’s an excellent speaker,” he remarked. “He concluded his address by really making an impassioned plea to all of the scientists present . . . really imploring scientists to think about the values that motivate their research and to become more politically active in voicing what that research means for society, for how we organize ourselves, for what we really need to consider moving forward.
“And I think that’s a growing sentiment,” Pelletier continued. “I think that’s really exciting for any young person who has not just interest in environmental issues, but interest in social issues more broadly.
“We’re at such a pivotal time in human evolution, in the evolution of our society, in the evolution of a globalized society, and there’s so much good work to be done,” he stressed.
“People should take that opportunity, go out, get out into the world, find a good program, take it as far as you can go.”