Profile in Conservation

WI Green Fire, April 14, 2022

Nancy Turyk

Nancy Turyk is the chair of WGF’s Climate Change Work Group and has recently directed her career focus to climate change by contributing her expertise through local, state, and federal work groups. We asked Nancy about her background, how she became interested in the field of climate change, and how she inspires others to fight climate change.  

How did your personal experiences influence your decision to become involved in your field? 

I spent my childhood outdoors, playing in and beneath my favorite trees, helping my parents garden, playing with monarch caterpillars, frequently picnicking and hiking at forest preserves, and camping with my family in the summer. As a result of spending so much time outside and my parents’ love for the outdoors, I became very attentive to the environment. I still have a paper that I wrote about air pollution around the time of the Clean Air Act when I was ten! My mom also had us recycling in the mid-70s, where we stockpiled things in the basement, filled the car, and went to the local recycling area to sort everything.  

I lived in Kentucky for a brief time after graduating high school and took some classes at Western Kentucky University (WKU), including Cave Biology and Karst Hydrology. In these classes, we spent all day in the caves at Mammoth Cave National Park crawling, climbing, sampling, and running experiments. My Karst Hydrology professor talked about spelunking for weeks in Africa, mapping caves to find a clean water source for people to drink. It was so intriguing!  

I ended up earning a BS in Water Chemistry with minors in chemistry and natural resource management, and an MS in Water Resources at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point (UWSP).  I worked for Dr. Byron Shaw in the water lab and on his groundwater research as an undergraduate. I continued my research with Byron after graduating and completed my thesis on modeling phosphorus in the Petenwell Flowage. At that time being a woman in water chemistry was unusual, but Byron was supportive. I continued to work with Byron for 11 years, and after his departure I shifted my research focus to lakes and rivers for the remaining 14 years I spent at UWSP. 

What are some lessons you have learned working with communities, especially around the topic of climate change? 

This is a big question that has evolved over time. Originally, community members wanted to learn why we thought climate change was occurring. For them, it seemed like its effects were minor and far in the future. 

As matters worsened, I wanted to focus my energy on those who were willing to work towards impactful change. I saw how deflated people were watching presentations that focused on how the climate was changing and its negative effects, particularly on natural resources. That was when I vowed to only do presentations that also include solutions. No one who is deflated has the energy to be creative and focus their energy on change. 

Since my goal is to inspire and help others act, I have learned to adjust my conversations and presentations to be meaningful to each specific audience. I sometimes only discuss solutions. For example, I talk about energy efficiency or renewable energy from the standpoint of benefits and co-benefits, leaving the term “climate change” out of the conversation. It is not necessary to always use terms that turn people away and delay change.  

Until recently, my climate change work has always been on top of my other work. Now it is the primary topic that I want to focus on at this point in my career. I’ve invested untold hours learning and participating in working groups, webinars, and conferences. Keeping up on the extensive amount of information often feels like drinking from a fire hose. 

Rather than focusing on the overwhelming reality of climate change, I want to focus on how to make meaningful change. I think it is crucial to have open discussions about the issue with those who haven’t had as much exposure and are less hardened to climate change information. While climate change discussions are still awkward in some settings, WGF has been a tremendous asset that has embraced and furthered the climate change discussion. 

What is your advice for young professionals and students who are interested in a career around climate change-related projects/issues? 

I am teaching a class at UWSP on climate change implications, policies, and solutions. The students are all studying natural resources but from a diverse array of majors. My goal is to equip these students with an understanding about climate change, and ways to find and use highly reputable information and resources and think through how they might incorporate this information into their professional and personal lives. It will take everyone, not just climate change specialists, making climate-positive changes in their jobs to make our planet more resilient. We need transformational systemic change to make a lasting difference.  

I also emphasize the reality of climate anxiety, making it a point to acknowledge to my students that climate anxiety is real and if they experience it, they need to take a step back and develop the strategies to deal with it in a healthy way. This will help people continue working on climate change – we need everyone doing their part, whatever that may be.