Natalie Kopytko is a lecturer at the University of Leeds’ Sustainability Research Institute. Her focus is on the links between complex environmental problems including water, climate change, energy and food. She has researched the impact of climate change on nuclear power; climate-resilient agriculture in Ukraine; and small-farmer innovation of indigenous plant varieties in India.
Was there a moment when you realised that the environment would be your lifelong passion?
I was really interested in science and nature as a child.
I grew up on a farm in western Canada, with a National Park a few miles away. My cousin Scott lived right next to the park boundary, and we spent hours playing outside. We both decided that we would have careers in nature.
I initially chose to study biology, but I became aware of many environmental problems including climate change at around the age of 10, so I planned to study environmental issues very early on.
I suppose I saw it as protecting my playground.
How has that passion developed over time? Have you gone down different byways, or maintained the same core interests?
In the ’90s, my university began an environmental degree programme in my second year. I decided to continue my focus on ecology with a minor in environmental toxicology. I’ve since moved to a more social science focus and, rather than studying nature, I study people’s relationship with nature.
As I got older, I became more interested in how people get and value their food. In part, I began to develop a greater interest in food after becoming a vegetarian at the age of 12. I had fresh produce from a garden and took that for granted – I didn’t realise how removed many people are from their food sources.
Are you still learning about the subject yourself?
I am always learning, always looking for opportunities to understand other perspectives. Since I teach research methods, I’m always keen to learn new ways of looking at the world through data analysis. I’m interested in complex topics and the interactions within topics such as climate, food, energy and water.
However, I can never fully plan for my learning journey because surprise opportunities happen. For instance, I initially wanted to research wetland agriculture during my master’s, but after a trip to Chernobyl I decided to switch to studying climate impacts on nuclear power.
“I planned to study environmental issues very early on. I suppose I saw it as protecting my playground .”
Who are your favourite inspirational figures from your field of study?
Probably because I was drawn to this topic as a child, I can only think of the names that I was familiar with then. For science in general, it was Marie Curie who made me believe that hard work would get me a career in science.
Elsewhere, pretty much everyone in Canada back then watched a show called The Nature of Things, hosted by the biologist David Suzuki.
It often highlighted environmental issues, so David’s work is very inspirational to me. He also highlighted the environmental impacts of projects on First Nations communities in Canada, which was my first insight into environmental injustices.
Where do the most rewarding moments come in teaching this subject?
The most rewarding thing is seeing students surprised about their learning and experiencing new things. For this, field trips can be really special. Even small things like wearing hip waders for the first time can be exciting for students!
This year I shared a statistics meme in one of the last sessions and some of the students were surprised about how funny they found it. They said it made them feel so intelligent that they got the joke!
Follow Natalie on Twitter @nat_tko
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