Face of the Month: Plant ecologist crawls in the bushes with a soil corer

19.6.2018 9:55

Environmental problems were a topical subject in Finland already in the 1980’s. Sari Stark, going to secondary school in Keminmaa, was hooked straight away. Nature and its phenomena sparked her interest, and soon she decided what she would want to do in the future. This decision has held until today.

– Environmental concerns have been important for me since I was young. During my studies, I chose plant ecology as my field of research. In my research, I have focused on interactions between organisms in fell or coniferous forest ecosystems.

Stark worked as a researcher for years with research scholarships and in temporary projects until she got a permanent researcher position at the Arctic Centre. She was already familiar with the place from previous research projects.

Getting a job was great news, but it brought one positive dilemma. In 2016, she had been granted a three-year research scholarship from the Kone Foundation. The parties easily reached mutual understanding.

– We decided that I would continue my research at the Arctic Centre with the scholarship until the end of September. Then I will start my tenure here, and serve the remaining scholarship months at a later point. Fortunately, both parties were OK with the arrangement.

Photo Maria Paldanius

The roots of the research she is working on reach for material under the ground and also under the annual strata. The subject of her research is in fact a sum of coincidences. After studying environmental issues for all her life Stark wanted a change and started studying cultural history in Open University. It was supposed to be something different and exceptional. However, circles closed in unexpected ways.

– The Kone Foundation favours new, cross-disciplinary openings. I came up with the idea of combining plant ecology and history, as I had already studied some cultural history.

The points of view of history and the Arctic soil brought the questions of how land use has shaped the soil over the centuries, and how the ecological processes have changed to the front of her research interests.

The focus is on the circulation of soil carbon and nitrogen in fell ecosystems, and the factors that regulate the activity of the decomposer microbes in soil litter and organic matter. The natural processes taking place today reflect past events in many different ways.

– The focus of research always depends on the research question. Soil biology is, however, one of the most important topics for me and I always carry it along. Soil brings together vegetation, geology and climate.

It is not possible to study soil only in the office at the Arctic Centre. Much of Stark’s work is “crawling in the bushes with a soil corer”. The samples she collects she takes to the research laboratory at the Natural Research Institute Finland in Rovaniemi. The Arctic Centre has an agreement on the joint use of the lab premises. All cooperation is invaluable for researchers who mostly toil alone. According to Stark, the Arctic Centre provides a most collaborative and international work community.

– The work climate here is multidisciplinary. Everyone works on their own research, and is a member of a larger community at the same time. There are no cliques. When I came here for the first time, I felt welcome immediately.

Sari Stark in Raja-Jooseppi using a metallic soil corer to get a sample of the humus layer. Photo Aarno Niva.

Sari Stark

  • Docent in plant ecology
  • University researcher and visiting researcher, Global Change research group
  • Research subjects: circulation of carbon and nutrients in the soil in Arctic ecosystems, interactions between the microbes in vegetation and soil, reflections of past land use on current ecosystems
  • Motto: "I aim at understanding things more broadly."

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Text: Maria Paldanius
Main photo: Sinikka Aakkonen