“Understanding how plants function helps us solve global challenges like global warming and extinction of certain plants”

In the Master’s Programme in Integrative Plant Sciences, students can combine their studies with other disciplines such as ecological biology, agricultural sciences or forestry. We talked to two students Zuzana Svarna and Favour Mba, and the Director of the Programme Saijaliisa Kangasjärvi.

Originally from Nigeria, Favour Mba (FM) started studying in the Master’s Programme in Integrative Plant Sciences in September 2022. Zuzana Svarna (ZS) is a final year student who grew up in Slovakia and in the UK. Saijaliisa Kangasjärvi (SK) has been Director of the programme since 2020.

Who is the Master’s Programme in Integrative Plant Sciences for and what is unique about it?

SK: The programme is primarily aimed at students who have a background in some area of biology and who are enthusiastic about plant science and future sustainable developments. Much of the programme focuses on basic plant research, so it is also suitable for students who are interested in the most fundamental questions in plant biology. We have also had students who come from other disciplines.

The integrative approach makes this degree unique: we start from the fundamental ecological and ecosystem level questions and then go all the way to the smallest molecules and molecular level (and the other way around). We have a wide range of lab courses and field courses to compliment the lectures, and there is great collaboration between different programmes, students and teaching staff. And I should also mention that the Viikki Campus is the most versatile plant biology centre in Finland!

ZS: In my experience this is a great programme for students who have a background in biology but who want to explore other related areas of research too. For example, before I joined the programme, this was the only degree I found in Europe where you could study soil sciences and plant sciences as part of the same programme. Depending on the student’s interest, the degree can be a mixture of molecular sciences with whatever else you wish to choose. It’s really flexible: I personally don’t just want to focus on one particular area, so have really valued the opportunity to engage with other programmes in e.g., the agricultural sciences, ecology, forestry and geology.

FM: During my search for MSc programmes in plant science, I found several institutions offering similar or related programmes. I was drawn to this one because the modules are prepared to enable students to have in-depth knowledge of how plants function, from the molecular to system level. Understanding how plants function helps us solve global challenges like global warming, extinction of certain plant species, and agricultural problems, especially in relation to plant breeding. Moreover, in the programme contents, there really is something for everyone. Just identify your areas of interest and boom! You have a tailor-made module.

What’s the study structure like?

SK: Our core curriculum consists of lectures and a wide range of lab courses and field courses. The key component is of course the student’s own master’s thesis, and we offer seminars and supervision related to their chosen project. There are core compulsory units everyone takes, but the overall study structure depends on what the student wants to focus on. We also offer the option of practical training in e.g., a research group or a governmental agency for students who are keen to learn about the professional application of their studies - these have been popular with students. The Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences has three research stations around Finland, and some biodiversity modules include field trips: one of them is up in Kilpisjärvi Lapland, organised in collaboration with other study programmes.

ZS: Students have some compulsory courses, and the rest of the programme depends on what other courses the student wants to choose from, such as molecular labs and genetic experiments, systematics and computer modelling or ecology/biodiversity which involves field trips. My overall degree is a mix: there are compulsory molecular studies, but I’ve also chosen a lot of courses in agriculture and isotope studies and ecology because my thesis will be focused on ecology. My thesis focuses on Kenyan plants so am looking to join a field trip there in January and have taken isotopes classes with the Geology department in preparation. As part of my agricultural studies, I’ve been visiting fruit breeding stations which involved us learning about the breeding methods and getting to taste different types of fruits much like in wine & grape tasting sessions in a vineyard.

Master’s students can also take PhD classes relevant to their studies, and some of these include field trips for which you can apply for a scholarship for. I was recently able to join a brilliant study trip to Sweden organised by the The Nordic Forestry, Veterinary and Agricultural University Network (NOVA). In my experience, scholarships and study funding are available to students.

FM: I only started my lectures last month, but it already feels like I have been on this for a year! I am taking three courses for this first period: Plant physiology, Plant adaptation, and Plants in a changing world. The study methods for these courses are lectures, written essays on articles you have read, group work and making a presentation on real-life research. The beautiful thing about this degree is that it’s an interactive study where both the teachers and the students are actively involved in the learning process. It’s also amazing to see how all the teachers are really engaged with each student’s interest.

What kinds of professional paths are available for students completing this degree?

SK: Many of our students continue into further PhD studies and academic careers, e.g., working in research institutes. Some might want to pursue their career in environmental charities and NGOs, or governmental agencies. There are also career opportunities in the private sector, such as biotechnological companies. We want to ensure this programme provides students with many transferrable skills that prepare them for varied professional paths.

ZS: Your career path depends on what you want to focus on during your studies: students I know have gone to do all kinds of things, some are doing their PhDs, and some have gone into teaching in their countries. There are also opportunities in the breeding and molecular sectors, in plant breeding techniques and genetically modified plants and crops.

I managed to get a lab technician job at the Helsinki National History Museum about a year ago while still studying. After completing the degree, I’d like to try the commercial sector for a couple of years, hopefully working “behind the scenes” in the supply or management department of a plant corporation.

FM: I think the major thing is for one to find his or her interest and carve a niche. Plants are very important for human survival too and for something this vital, I think everyone could find something important to do with such a degree. I haven’t yet decided if I would proceed with a PhD degree or try to get a job somewhere, but I’ll figure it out later as I progress.

How is student life in Helsinki?

ZS: Because of Covid-19 my study group in the first year was small: but we became close friends. There are faculty-related societies students can join, which are wonderful: through them students can get involved with social events, trips and excursions. There are also many affordable opportunities and societies for exercise classes and other activities. Also, international students have the opportunity to study Finnish for free, which is great and helps with integrating into Finnish society and accessing possible job prospects. I look forward to trying cross-country skiing this winter as my friend has promised to teach me!

FM: It has been good even though I’ve only just started and so am still adjusting to the new environment. I have already met some other students both local and international. We are all looking forward to getting to know each other better. 

As a student in Finland, we get to enjoy massive discounts for apartments, public transport, some shops and in the university lunch cafeteria UniCafe. Also, I am studying in the capital city, I think that’s a huge plus: there are lots of opportunities in terms of building connections with people and life after completing the degree as most companies are located in Helsinki.

Helsinki is a very international city, so you get to meet people from all over. The challenge for me is the Finnish language as my first language is English. In the university environment, most people communicate in English though which helps! I have been speaking to some Finns and they are quite kind in giving helpful tips on how to survive when winter finally comes – I don’t even know what to expect as it gets colder here but I think I am mentally prepared for it.

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Master's Programme in Integrative Plant Sciences

Life on Earth depends on solar energy captured by plants - they are the base of most food webs and underpin the functioning of all major ecosystemsPlants release the oxygen we breath. They convert solar energy into chemical energy, providing us with food, fibres, renewable energy sources, and raw materials for many industries. Plants do not carry out these processes in isolation. They interact with other organisms and the physical and chemical environment, communicate and actively adjust to their circumstances. How do they do these things at molecular, physiological and functional levels and how can we profit from understanding that?

When you have graduated from the Master’s Programme in Integrative Plant Sciences you will have the current answers, based on cutting-edge research by our scientists, to these big questions, and more.