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Professor’s path leads her to a new landscape

Whether she was growing up in rural England, attending high school and college in Michigan and graduate school in North Carolina, or now living and working in West Lafayette, Linda Prokopy has always been keenly aware of the landscapes that surround her. 

Her interest in environmental issues first emerged in high school. “I was involved in debate and forensics in high school. I needed a topic and my chemistry teacher encouraged me to talk about the depletion of the ozone layer,” said Prokopy, Purdue’s newly appointed department head for horticulture and landscape architecture (HLA). “That was a defining experience.”

Prokopy Photos were shot Sept. 13 2018 as part of the semester-long documentation of the NRES leadership skills program. Each week, the students participated in a different activity (usually away from campus) that gave them a well-rounded look at agriculture.

Prokopy grew increasingly interested and invested in environmental causes—particularly environmental racism after learning in a university class about the disproportionate impacts of pollution on people of color. That passion led to studying environmental policy. When she had to write and conduct a survey for a college class that sparked her interest in social science and, eventually, a degree in environmental planning.

During her senior year at the University of Michigan, Prokopy studied in Russia, where she met an urban planner who convinced her that environmental planning was the way to save the world.

“After that,” Prokopy remembers, “I applied to graduate school. I don’t remember even considering a different choice.”

She originally intended to earn a master’s degree, but a professor invited Prokopy to spend a summer in India studying women empowerment issues. Her experience and the influence of her professor convinced Prokopy to earn a doctorate. 

Prokopy’s diverse experiences also translated into how she conducts her research, which always has a stakeholder component, and led her to Purdue’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources when they were looking for someone with a planning and ecology degree.  During that first year Jane Frankenburger, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, invited Prokopy to join her at an Environmental Protection Agency meeting in Chicago. That meeting led to a project Frankenburger, Prokopy and Ron Turco, professor and department head of agronomy, would work on together as well as a series of multidisciplinary projects that Prokopy says define her Purdue career.

“One of the huge opportunities at Purdue is the support for collaborative and interdisciplinary research. We don’t just talk about it. And we don’t discount collaboration through the promotion process. Purdue puts their money where their mouth is on this issue.”

Prokopy explains why, after 17 years as a successful faculty member, she decided to apply for the position of HLA department head (after a little prodding from search committee chair Botany Professor Peter Goldsbrough).

“I’ve always known I wanted to keep doing research and teaching. But I was also ready for a new challenge, although I wasn’t sure what that would be.” 

As she considered the invitation to apply, Prokopy realized HLA was exactly the challenge she was seeking.

“HLA is extremely well positioned to contribute to basic and applied science questions that will help the state, nation and world in the turbulent times ahead.”

To create and realize a vision for the department, Prokopy intends to work with colleagues to build a collaborative and supportive culture that she can vividly imagine.

“Energetic hallways! I want to feel a buzz when I walk out of my office—people energized to talk about their work and finding support from colleagues. I hope an immediate outcome will be people creating a vision together and learning we can get more value out of working together rather than separately.”

Prokopy cites numerous opportunities for HLA colleagues to work together to create a diversified landscape, a vision she articulated in the seminar she presented during her interview.

“I believe we need landscape transformation. For example, some of the molecular genetics work in the department contributes to our ability to develop crops that will flourish in a changing climate with minimal environmental impact. The need to grow food in controlled environments will only increase and research, extension and education are critical. The turf team and the master gardener program facilitate improved community development by creating low-impact spaces for people to gather. The department’s marketing work will help connect food growers to food consumers, and we will increasingly need innovative ways to reach less engaged consumers. Landscape architects will facilitate discussions about how we design the landscape to accommodate a changing climate and can help us envision it.”

Prokopy recognizes that they must all work together to build a departmental culture where faculty and staff members are supported, mentored and free to express concerns. 

 “I think I have an ability to bring people together. I have been able to work with people who have very different opinions and values than I have. I’m technically an introvert who doesn’t like small talk. However, I do take the time to get to know people through 1:1 conversations. I’m committed to building a department that can lead change working together and will create a welcoming culture for all students, staff and faculty.” 

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