From Hart Highlands Elementary to global climate change researcher

When Dr. Tristan Pearce reflects on the experiences that led him to a career as a researcher in the field of global climate change, he finds influential moments as far back as elementary school and high school.

Sitting in his new office overlooking his hometown University of Northern British Columbia campus, Pearce thinks back to his days at Hart Highlands Elementary School and Kelly Road Secondary School. At Hart Highlands, he was shaped by librarian Debbie Hartley and her Problem Solving Challenge. At Kelly Road, he was impacted significantly by his involvement in the school’s debating club.

“A lot of times, I think people think that it’s just the recent opportunities during our adulthood (that form us) but it’s all anchored back into early experiences,” said Pearce, a 1997 graduate of Kelly Road who started his position at UNBC on July 1. He’s an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair of Cumulative Impacts of Environmental Change in UNBC’s Department of Global and International Studies. Prior to his return home, he worked for the Sustainability Research Centre at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.

“She (Hartley) was hugely instrumental,” Pearce continued. “She organized something called the Problem Solving Challenge for the school – I think it was a city-wide event – and they took students from different elementary schools and they would come together and have a problem solving challenge. It was a facilitated event where these teams were posed with these challenges – different dynamics that tested problem solving and skill development.

“You’re at a young age when you’re trying to find your social status and I remember this clearly. There are kids that are better athletes and they’re stronger and they’re more experienced or they have different familial experiences that lend themselves to being more socially popular, and when you’re one that is thinking and wants to gain knowledge, then having people like Debbie Hartley recognize it and go, ‘Hey, that is really great, I acknowledge that, come and be part of this and we’re going to celebrate your learnedness,’ that was huge for me.”

To the best of his recollection, Pearce was in Grade 5 at the time. His participation in the Problem Solving Challenge led to an interest in science fairs and those became another way he was able to feed his hunger for knowledge and feel good about his accomplishments. Pearce finished off his time at Hart Highlands with Grade 7 teacher Terry Smith, who was “hugely instrumental” in preparing him for the jump to secondary school.

While Pearce was a student at Kelly Road, he took honours-level courses from Grades 10 through 12, excelled in athletics and joined the debating club that was being run by teacher Arie Vanleyenhorst.

“If anything is linked to what I do now in the pursuit of academia, it’s debating,” Pearce said. “And I think a lot of my colleagues would also make that connection. You get to learn how to address big questions in a structured, learned way. You learn how to seek out information, you learn how to critically think, you learn how to present an argument in an organized and articulate way.

“(Through debating at Kelly Road), we learned how to present ourselves next to others, in other districts, who were coming from different school experiences. You have the private schools in the Lower Mainland, you have schools across Canada, and you have us…. And you go out and you realize, ‘Wow, I’ve got some neat things and attributes from being raised in Prince George and growing up in School District No. 57 that I can bring forth. But I can also now position those next to other people and figure out where I sit, what I need to do more of in order to be positioned better.’ Debating was fantastic – bonds between ages, the mentorship. I can’t plug it enough.”

After Pearce graduated from Kelly Road, he took his first year of post-secondary schooling at the College of New Caledonia and then transferred to UNBC. There, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree (2003) in International Studies. Pearce moved on to the University of Guelph, where he obtained a Master of Arts (2006) in Geography/International Development and, in 2011, a PhD in Geography.

Pearce’s work has taken him around the world. His research into the human dimensions of climate change has made an impact in the understanding of how communities in the Arctic, Australia and Pacific Islands Region are experiencing climate change and responding to it. The overarching goal of his research is to contribute to the development of more sustainable environmental and social policies that better reflect and support the needs, concerns and aspirations of communities.

Pearce is now basing his research program at UNBC and will also teach fourth-year and graduate-level courses starting in 2020. In his work and personal life, he’s an advocate for taking better care of the global environment and even that big-picture mindset is something he can trace back to his time as a student in School District No. 57.

“The values of the environment and taking care of your schoolyard were instilled in me at the elementary school level, through people like Terry Smith, through people like Debbie Hartley,” he said.

“If you can’t go out and take care of your little forest that fringes your schoolyard, then you’re going to be less equipped to go out and protect anything in this world. If you’re passionate about a certain species that’s threatened in Borneo or somewhere else, the starting point is, I believe, definitely, looking out your back window and going, ‘You know what? Maybe we should plant a few more trees, and maybe we should be taking care of the environment that we have.’ It was instilled in me at a young age.”