2019 Education LCA Leadership Award: Nathan Pelletier, PhD, Food Systems PRISM Lab

ACLCA Leadership Awards recognize the role of perceptive and forward-thinking individuals or organizations that have been instrumental in the advancement and application of LCA and life cycle thinking.

Nathan Pelletier is an ecological economist and industrial ecologist at the University of British Columbia. An exemplar of interdisciplinary research, he holds professorial appointments in the Faculties of Management and Arts and Sciences (Biology), as well as the Endowed Chair in Bio-economy Sustainability Management and the NSERC/Egg Farmers of Canada Industrial Research Chair in Sustainability.

Pelletier’s Food Systems Priority Research for Integrated Sustainability Management (PRISM) Lab is a hub for cross-cutting research. It is currently home to 9 graduate students and two post-doctoral fellows undertaking life cycle-based evaluation of precision agriculture and other sustainable intensification technologies and management strategies for application along Canadian egg supply chains and in the agri-food sector more broadly. The PRISM Lab is also leading the development of the Canadian Agri-food Life Cycle Data Centre. For more information see www.prismlab.weebly.com.

What was hard?

I’ve been in my current position at the University of British Columbia for only three years now. During that time, as I’ve built up the Food Systems PRISM Lab, transitioning from the role of the researcher to research facilitator and mentor has involved a steep learning curve. Along the way, I’ve focused on developing a set of lab management protocols and both research and professional norms to ensure consistency in collective practices in the lab, as well as efficient continuity within our scholarly community. In particular, I’ve worked hard to ensure that the life cycle inventory modeling and assessment work that students in the PRISM Lab undertake meets a high bar with respect to best practices in the field. This has involved a lot of experimentation, co-learning, and co-evolution. Current status – work in progress!

What was fun?

I fell in love with research as a grad student. During my MSc, I started compiling a list of interesting research questions to pursue. Within about 12 months I realized that, if I were to have any hope of answering all of them, I’d have to eventually become a prof and recruit a whole bunch of graduate students of my own to do the heavy lifting. Fast forward 13 years… and it’s a blast! I thoroughly enjoy managing a team of bright young scholars. Working together, we can go so much further and faster than any of us could achieve alone. We’re also very fortunate to collaborate with an industry partner – Egg Farmers of Canada – that directly supports our research and who will facilitate knowledge translation and transfer to their constituents, Canadian egg farmers. This means that, beyond the fundamental research, much of the work that we do will be directly applied to improving sustainability management in the egg industry.

What made you proud?

Mentoring and witnessing the development of graduate students in my lab is a constant source of pride. They are a diverse group, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but they are all well along the way to making valuable contributions to the field.

What innovation, applications or another area of LCA are you most excited about?

In general, the growing recognition of the importance of life cycle thinking and LCA in evidence-based decision making is very exciting. This is readily apparent at present in the agri-food sector, which is the object of most of the research in the Food Systems PRISM Lab. At the same time, while we’ve already come a long way, there is still so much space for improvement and innovation in our field. As practitioners, we need to simultaneously hold our community to high standards with respect to fundamental aspects of good science, including transparency of methods and data, reproducibility, and rigorous quantification and communication of uncertainty. This is essential to providing trustworthy decision support and to enhance the confidence of decision-makers in the work that we do. There are also so many areas into which our field can expand. LCA practitioners have proven very adept at borrowing, adapting, and integrating information and methods from other fields. Coupling traditional LCA with emerging fields such as machine learning seems like a particularly exciting direction right now.

Find out more about Dr. Pelletier and the Prism Food Lab and the 2019 LCA Awards.