Wednesday, 30 May 2018

From the floor to the canopy

A young Yadira Corbet always wondered what went on in the UBC forestry building where she helped her mother clean floors

Yadira Rosa Corbet remembers the first time she walked into a lab at UBC’s faculty of forestry.

Her mom worked nights as a janitor in the building and Corbet would sometimes lend a hand. Together they vacuumed the floors, emptied the garbage and dusted the equipment.

Corbet, who always had a love of science, recognized some of the lab equipment from high school classes.

“I said, ‘Ma, I know what this stuff is,’” she recalls. “‘I should just go to this school!’ That was the moment I realized I wanted to pursue science at the post-secondary level.”

“And I said to Yadira, ‘That’s right, you should be a scientist…but it will cost a lot of money!’” her mother Lucy Corbet adds with a laugh. “Never mind, I said, we’ll make it happen!”

On May 31, Corbet will cross the stage at the Chan Centre to accept her degree in natural resources conservation. Her mom will be in the audience, proudly cheering her on.

“Now we have a scientist in the family,” she says. “You never think something like this could happen. It’s like a dream.”

The Doorway to the Hills

Corbet grew up in Burnaby in a bi-racial Canadian and Dominican family.

“I went to the Dominican Republic for the first time when I was six years old,” she says. “Growing up, I felt a certain obligation to do the best I could in Canada given that I had all of these privileges, like going to a world-class school like UBC.”

True to her word, Corbet was a go-getter from an early age. At 16, she talked her way onto an international experience trip intended for 18- to 24-year-olds that took her to Thailand, India and Vietnam.

Then, at the age of 19, Corbet found herself alone, about to board a boat from Singapore to Indonesia. Her final destination was Bukit Lawang – a tiny town in northern Sumatra that is known as the “doorway to the hills” and home to one of the world’s most infamous endangered species, the Sumatran orangutan.

Corbet recalls the boat was heaving with people who seemed to be transporting all of their worldly possessions.

“I looked around and said to myself: is this really happening?” she says with a laugh.

Corbet in Bukit Lawang

Corbet in Bukit Lawang. Credit: Yadira Corbet

Sumatran orangutan in Bukit Lawang

Sumatran orangutans in Bukit Lawang. Credit: Yadira Corbet

The journey to Bukit Lawang took five days and it was an experience that changed her.

“That trip was really powerful for me because it took me to this stunning jungle and I got to see the orangutans in the wild,” says Corbet. “That really put a passion in my heart to know that places like this still exist and need to be protected.”

On the way to Bukit Lawang, Corbet had witnessed something that troubled her deeply: large areas of tropical forest cleared away and replaced by vast palm oil monocultures responsible for habitat loss and climate change.

“I got back from that trip with a fire in my belly,” Corbet says. “At UBC, we learn a lot about Indonesia – how it’s a biodiversity hotspot and how the land is changing so quickly. I was there. I saw it. You can’t ever unsee things like that, and that drove me to learn as much as I could in school to help change things.”


Corbet enrolled at UBC as a transfer student from Mount Royal University, choosing the natural resources conservation program with a focus on global perspectives.

“I quickly found my passion in statistics and numbers,” she says. “I’m really interested in the intersection between business and the environment, and specifically how we can do business sustainably.”

To learn more, Corbet set up an internship in Sri Lanka through contacts from her statistics professor. She spent a summer interning at MIND, a sustainable development organization aimed at balancing people-oriented priorities like poverty alleviation with environmental priorities like natural resource depletion.

“I visited a water treatment plant where the water levels were the lowest they had been in ten years due to deforestation. The issue was that people were cutting down trees for subsistence because there were no alternative jobs, which was causing problems with the water supply,” Corbet explains.

“What I really learned was how to facilitate different sectors to work together, whether that be the environment sector with the social sector and so on. Those connections are really important to make any lasting changes.”

In the future, Corbet wants to start a company that sells environmental business plans to other firms so they can upgrade and incorporate more sustainable practices into their business models.

“I want to be part of a shift in thinking that views our natural resources as invaluable and move towards having the economy protect the environment, and the environment maintains the economy.”

Corbet in Sri Lanka

Corbet in Sri Lanka. Credit: Yadira Corbet

Yadira Corbet is graduating at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 31, at The Chan Centre for Performing Arts (6265 Crescent Road, UBC Vancouver campus). She is available for interviews on Wednesday, May 30.

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