Allie Pugh with Sturgeon

Photo: Allie Pugh with a Shortnose Sturgeon while conducting research on an electrofishing boat.

Catching Up With a Mary Majka Scholarship Recipient

MARCH 13, 2020 — Around the world, environmental activism is being led by young people, like Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier. Here in New Brunswick, the same is true; thousands of young people have hosted and attended #FridaysForFuture climate strikes across the province and continue to raise awareness about environmental issues at their schools, at home, and on social media. With no sign of these youth-led movements slowing down, many teens are now pursuing subjects related to the environment in their post-secondary education, and luckily for those across the province, Nature NB can help thanks to the Mary Majka Scholarship.

Who is Mary Majka?

The Mary Majka Scholarship was created in 2014 to honour the life and legacy of Mary Majka, one of the founding members of Nature NB. The scholarships are given annually to further youth engagement with nature and our natural heritage by providing financial support for their schooling and educational projects.

Mary Majka was an environmental pioneer, TV host, wildlife rehabilitator, outdoor educator, activist, and so much more. She was a driving force behind New Brunswick’s first conservation organizations, but it was her passionate defense for the preservation of our cultural heritage, sensitive habitats, and wild creatures that share our world that most influenced those around her. This scholarship recognizes young people who share in Mary’s vision and are taking action for a better future.

Sitting Down with a Past Recipient

Enter Allie Pugh, a third year student at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). Allie was the recipient of the Mary Majka Scholarship in 2017. We caught up with her to see how her studies are helping her follow in Mary’s footsteps.

As soon as we sat down in a crowded local coffee shop, Allie was already lamenting the fact that the cafe didn’t offer reusable smoothie cups, but made patrons use the single-use plastic cups even if they weren’t getting their order to-go. Allie cited this type of wasteful packaging as one of the driving factors behind her desire to learn more about protecting our environment.

“I was working at Tim Hortons at the time that I applied for the scholarship, which I didn’t like, because you see how much waste everybody produces on a day-to-day basis,” said Allie. “I was actually sitting out back on break when I realized the scholarship was due. I got out my computer and just started writing my application.”

Allie Pugh

Rain or shine, you can pretty much always find Allie out on the river.

Like many young people, Allie worked through high school to save money for tuition. Receiving the Mary Majka Scholarship helped ease the burden, and made post-secondary education just that much more accessible. During high school, one of Allie’s biggest supporters was her teacher who not only recommended that she apply for the scholarship, but who also introduced her to the field of environmental science. Allie is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Environment and Natural Resources program at UNB.

“A lot of people actually don’t know it’s a degree, that environment and natural resources is a degree at UNB,” Allie explains. “That’s what I was really surprised by. Everybody’s like, What’s that? And I’m like It’s my degree, it’s my life! A lot of people end up going into the biology field figuring it’s the same thing. But it’s very different.”

The UNB website states that the degree program allows those enrolled to study in an outdoor classroom, and major in either Environmental Management, Wildlife Conservation, or Water Resource Management, the third being Allie’s major. The coursework is all focused around helping students learn more about all aspects of the Earth’s environment, including air, water, food sources, and more. Aspects of biology, chemistry, sociology, and other disciplines come together to provide a holistic understanding of how our actions impact the world we live in and what we can do to mitigate those impacts.

“There’s so much hands-on experience,” says Allie of the program. “I recommend it to anybody who loves the outdoors. I got to learn how to measure trees properly, and we’re outside every week. In second year I got to do a soils course and then this year, I got to do a shrubs course. Those are my favorite classes; I get to learn hands-on what types of plants grow where, and how they grow. I never realized how many plants we have. But when I go on walks in Odell Park, I can say, I know what that is! and recognize plants that I would never have recognized. I get to see moss and lichen and think, I know what this is; I know why it’s here. And to me, that’s amazing.”

Allie spends the summers working with the Canadian Rivers Institute, assisting PhD and Masters students with their surveying and research. She’s spent time in an electrofishing boat, a specially designed watercraft which sends mild electric currents through the water to temporarily stun fish, allowing them to be studied and released. This summer, Allie will be working on her own research, as she heads to the Miramichi to work on her honours project to learn more about how trout and salmon adapt to cold water refuges.

Allie Pugh

Allie steers a research boat.

Allie’s interest in fish and water habitats can be traced back to her father John Pugh, an avid fisherman and member of organizations such as the New Brunswick Salmon Council where he is currently serving as President. But the organizations that her dad is involved with are not the only ones that have inspired Allie’s love of nature.

“I’ve been in Girl Guides for 16 years now,” says Allie. “I grew up learning about camping, being outside, and I immediately fell in love with it, with the outdoor skills. It made me feel good about myself and made me feel good about the world around me, like I got to see the connection between us and the world when I was outside, which is so nice. And it was very much a therapeutic thing for me. Growing up, I had a really hard time with anxiety and I figured out as I grew up that shutting off my phone, shutting off everything, and just taking a walk with my mom outside made my day so much better. Doing that as a career, feeling great while being outside… I don’t know why I wouldn’t do it.”

In addition to becoming a member of organizations like Girl Guides of Canada or Scouts Canada, Allie had some other advice for young people who are looking to learn more about protecting our natural world.

“Just go for a walk and pick up some garbage, it can be that simple. Learn about recycling programs in your community. Grow your own garden in your backyard. Visit your local library and try to get some background information about environmental sciences because I went into the degree with some knowledge, but I definitely still felt like I went in blind because there’s just so much to know. Visit wetlands, play outside… don’t be afraid to play outside. Love the sunshine, love the rain, the snow. Appreciate everything that the world gives to you. There’s so much to discover when you go outside.”

As Allie enters her final year of study, we took a few moments to reflect on the words of the teacher that first inspired her to study environmental science, the same teacher who recommended her for the Mary Majka Scholarship. The letter of recommendation said that Allie was someone who could lead by example, and who made it cool to wear hip waders.

“Three years later, here I am doing the exact same thing,” said Allie, laughing. “It wasn’t the last time that I was found in hip waders digging in the bottom of a pond or a river or a lake. And believe me: it will not be the last.”

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