Alumni Spotlight | Fall 2020

Lakehead for Life: Dr. Nancy Luckai (HBSCF’78/MSc’81)

A photo of some of the beautiful trees around campus

Lakehead for Life

“Lakehead has been my home in so many different ways,” says Natural Resources Management Professor Emerita, Dr. Nancy Luckai. “It introduced me to the idea of graduate school and gave me the opportunity to teach, conduct research, and train another generation of forest professionals. I met my husband Frank here and both my children are Lakehead grads.”

In the words of Mark Tilbury, the University’s Annual Fund and Alumni Engagement Director, “Nancy is the embodiment of Lakehead for Life.”

“I was attracted to Lakehead because it was as far away as possible from my hometown of London without leaving the province,” Nancy says, “and forestry seemed like an intriguing subject.”

“There were very few programs in the 70s with an emphasis on the outdoors so it was pretty competitive. I can’t claim to have been an ideal student, especially during my first two years when I was more interested in socializing than studying.” By her third and fourth years, though, she’d found topics that resonated with her and her undergraduate thesis advisor, Dr. Stan Navratil, encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree at Lakehead.

“It was the School of Forestry at the time and one of the largest student bodies in the University. Like many of the professional schools, the profs had spent most of their careers in industry, consulting, or government before taking up teaching. Their work experiences made for some very interesting and entertaining lecture material" Nancy says.

When Dr. Navratil left for an extended sabbatical, the School asked Nancy to teach his courses. “It was my first teaching experience and the start of a long career at Lakehead.”

This position was followed by work as Dr. Navratil’s research assistant and then, in an unexpected move, a job with the Registrar’s Office doing academic advising, admissions, and liaising with prospective students.

“I was in my late 20s, so I was a bit older than the usual recruiter,” Nancy says, “but I was so passionate about the opportunities that Lakehead offered. This job provided insight into the amazing range of opportunities available to Lakehead students and introduced me to the staggering number of policies, regulations, and procedures that govern all student-related programs and activities – knowledge that came in very handy in later years as a program chair.”

After 18 months, Nancy made another switch – this time to the School of Forestry greenhouse manager.

“Growing plants and seedlings for teaching and research purposes, I was able to apply what I had learned as a student. As a bonus, I got to know the great people in Physical Plant. I relied on them a lot because there were so many operating systems in those buildings – electrical, plumbing, heating, mechanical – and so many things that could go wrong.”

When the School of Forestry was looking for a new forest ecology professor, Nancy lobbied for the job. Offered the position on the condition that she get her PhD, Nancy remembers a meeting with Dr. Bob Rosehart, then president of Lakehead, to discuss the appointment. “Bob cautioned me about the challenge I was taking on. He was right.”

“I did my degree part-time through the University of Guelph, starting in 1994, while maintaining my faculty commitments. It was a long haul, especially for my family, but absolutely worth it.”

An old black and white photograph of Forestry students of Lakehead University
The camaraderie among forestry students and the chance to be outdoors are a couple of the things that reinforced Nancy’s love of her field. She has fond memories of a first-year forest inventory course. “We had a lab every week on the opposite side of Oliver Road in George Burke Park.”

Nancy would lead the accreditation of the FoReST lab as a member of LU’s Centre for Analytical Services (LUCAS). As an accredited facility, the lab supported research programs at Lakehead and elsewhere and created successful partnerships with government, industry, local farmers, and gardeners. “The mentorship provided by Al Mackenzie, himself an LU grad and then director of LUCAS, and the contributions of intelligent and dedicated graduate students and student employees were absolutely key to the lab’s success," Nancy says. 

Although officially retired as of July 2020, she is still actively involved in teaching, research, and professional forestry education.

A portrat of Nancy Luckai

Her research interests fall into two main areas – measuring forest biodiversity to assist with management planning decisions and investigating carbon and nitrogen cycling in forest environments. Her work has been widely recognized, including winning a Lakehead University Innovation Award, a Northern Ontario Business Influential Women Award, and a Tree of Life Award from the Canadian Institute of Forestry.

“I really appreciate where we live,” she says, “the boreal forest is full of complexity and mystery. I love sharing that with students.”

Throughout her time at Lakehead, Nancy has pushed herself to take on new challenges. She’s been the chair of the Environmental Management program, head marshal of Lakehead’s annual convocation ceremonies for almost 40 years, and in 2014, she became deputy provost in the Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic). “The learning curve was very steep but being able to work with so many talented and knowledgeable colleagues made it all much easier.”

She’s also volunteered her time to Lakehead by serving as a board member of the Alumni Association of Lakehead University.

In the spring of 2018, Nancy’s former classmate and her fellow Natural Resources Management faculty member, Dr. Reino Pulkki, worked closely with the organizing committee of the 40th reunion of the 1978 graduating class. Nancy was eager to get involved.

Nancy and her beautiful family“I organized a scavenger hunt that sent alumni to our old haunts where they took selfies as evidence of completing each task,” Nancy says. “It was a fun way to share memories – like nights at the Crest Hotel, a favourite watering hole, which used to have a 'Ladies and Escorts' entrance and beer at $0.25 a glass. When 'last call' came, we would pool our money and often filled up a whole table with glasses of draft. I think the staff were happy to see us – but also happy when we left!”

Having made the journey from naïve undergrad to seasoned professor, Nancy has been reflecting on how Lakehead shaped the course of her life.

“I was always encouraged to try new things and I could always find people to help me,” she explains, “and I think that’s why I succeeded.”

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