Positioned at the intersection of natural sciences, agriculture & farming, environmental studies, biology and microbiological technology, the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Helsinki, Finland, creates unique opportunities.
Progress through the courses can be largely self-determined, with teaching structures and support being modelled to students’ particular strengths and interests. The broad range of specialisations means individuals can carve their own furrow – and this is especially true at the postgraduate level.
Studying Biological & Environmental Science is especially apposite at present. In certain parts of the world, agriculture creates the majority of countries’ GDPs, and with 2050 potentially seeing the world population hit the ten billion mark, the pressure for sustainable food production has never been more intense.
Simultaneously, the environmental impact of many farming practices continues to worry academics and activists alike, with governments and transnational organisations taking the first steps towards real remedial action.
Pursuing a career in Biological and Environmental Sciences, therefore, means undergraduates and postgrads alike can find ways to the solutions that tackle the most challenging concerns facing the world (and its future) today. No other field of study and research will have such a significant effect – graduates of the department will literally be capable of changing the world.
Study in this challenging field at the University of Helsinki provides multiple streams where different disciplines merge. Students can focus on agricultural systems and environmental technologies, combining interests in specific crops’ morphology and development, alongside modern plant and animal biotechnology.
The informal mix between disciplines, and also between staff, researchers, Masters and undergraduates creates a relaxed yet profoundly knowledgeable environment in which to learn and develop at every study level.
Students have a good deal of freedom to choose from a range of electives, allowing focus on subfields of neuroscience, microbiology, biotech and even mycology. The department’s ethos is one of academic inclusivity, where teaching is about the sharing of knowledge and a passion for science: everyone belongs to the scientific community, whatever their role or specialisation, or stage of learning.
Because a full spectrum of topics come together in life sciences, interdisciplinary methods and approaches are adopted; the disparity of subjects’ backgrounds creates a vibrant atmosphere in which discovery and individual pursuit of excellence are rewarded.
The University’s ground-breaking HELSUS research institute brings together academics and students from outside science subjects’ immediate remits, meaning study and research at Helsinki can provide a more significant practical, real-world understanding of some of the challenges that will be faced by graduates and postgraduates.
Sustainable food production systems, for example, require in-depth knowledge of crop production and farming practices, including, for instance, nutrient and water management. But at the same time, practical knowledge of specifics of law and economics intermingle: these are areas which are not by any means pure scientific academe, yet serve to enrich the learning experience and engender real-world practicalities.
Despite its short history (it’s only two years old), HELSUS is adding significant weight to many research programmes; notable among them, the Global South provisions.
Global South concentrates on the forest ecosystem services required to meet sustainable development goals in rural communities. Projects observe the livelihoods of rural communities and how forested areas can be used sustainably, allowing human life to continue in harmony with its surroundings.
The processes by which the natural world can affect climate change and adaptation is one other area in which disciplines intermingle. One example would be in cyanobacteria, which can photosynthesise, produce oxygen and sequester carbon.
These organisms’ plant-like behaviour and potential are being investigated in active research projects across the department, alongside more traditional investigations into global warming mitigation methods, such as those derived from changing land use and increasing forest restoration.
In specific areas, Helsinki leads the academic world. Professor Juha Voipio’s work into electrophysiological techniques has produced a unique course, which combines cutting-edge theory with practical work – read more about this specialisation here.
The Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences undoubtedly has the only microbiological programme in Finland (and strictly one of the only ones available across Europe) which focuses on both microbiology and microbial technology. Alongside microbiology and medical microbiology, students, staff and researchers together examine and explore virology, food microbiology and biotech, environmental microbiology and mycology.
Courses and research streams as diverse as these equip the next generation with the technical skills, aptitudes and abilities needed across a broad range of positive, world-enhancing careers; from farming technology, to food production and environmental work – for private or public sectors, NGOs and trans-governmental bodies.
Undergrads study biology, molecular biosciences or environmental sciences more broadly, before selecting a specialisation in their chosen discipline.
On graduation, alumni have the knowledge and skills needed to apply information based on biological and environmental research to critical social matters, such as healthcare, the sustainable use of natural resources and environmental policy.
For those wishing to continue their work, the faculty currently offers three research programmes: ecosystems & environment, organismal & evolutionary biology, and molecular & integrative biosciences.
The department is based in the friendly, safe and cosmopolitan capital of Finland – one of the best cities in the world in which to live – plus there are research stations run by the department at Kilpisjärvi, Lapland, and Lammi, Southern Finland. Plus, there’s a zoological station at Tvärminne on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
Creating a positive and empowering learning experience is what drives faculty staff. Here’s the last word from Juha Voipio again, Director of the Master’s programme in Neuroscience:
“The best moments as a teacher are those when I see students’ delight evoked by sudden perception when pieces of information click together in their minds, and they understand some difficult issue for the first time.”